My most marketable skill is speaking Japanese. In fact, all of my jobs have been in Japan.

While technically I did take Japanese classes in college, I never really studied. My marks were so bad, I did not even qualify for "study abroad".

When doing interviews for working in Japan again, is it more impressive to say:

  1. Having never "studied" the language (mostly true), after college graduation I bought a one-way ticket to Tokyo and found a job (true). I learned spoken Japanese by just repeating the Japanese I heard every day (true).
  2. My childhood dream was to live abroad (true). I chose Japan and took language classes in college (true), studied hard (not so true), and that is what allowed me to be successful in Japan. This evokes an image of being "goal driven".

When casually meeting a new person, I like to say #1. I like to project that having been thrown into a do/die situation, somehow I learned Japanese and was able to survive. It allows a conversation about why and how I did it. It is a good ice-breaker.

But, in very serious job interviews, which sounds more impressive?

Story #1: I took a huge risk and was a survivor? I can build rapport with the interviewer by re-telling how and why I did it.

Story #2: Emphasize that, as a goal driven person, through hard work and diligence, I was able to succeed.

  • 5
    I would just state that I speak fluent Japanese, without going into detail about how I learned it.
    – jamesqf
    Feb 7 '16 at 19:12
  • 4
    Japanese is a very special case among foreign languages in that you can speak it fluently even with a native person - but, you might not be able to read even the most basic written things! If you intend to use such a language as a profession, you probably need to be able to prove your written skills too. There are formal exams for Japanese, where you can get an official certificate of skill. That is probably the best bet for you. Feb 8 '16 at 7:52
  • 1
    If you want to impress in foreign langauge ability, the way to do it is by being able to actually use the language (living in the area helps a great deal). Whether you give an exciting or impressive story of how you got that proficiency is not so important (but don't lie). BTW, many people have got good marks in foreign language classes but then discover that's not enough to actually get to business proficiency.
    – Brandin
    Feb 8 '16 at 9:04
  • The lying aspect aside, what makes you think that employers would consider not bothering to study and just parroting native speakers until you got it mostly right to be a positive quality? And that isn't even the biggest problem I see here. Do you honestly mean to say that after a career spanning presumably many years, the single best skill you can think of is that you can speak the language of the country where you work(ed)? Really?
    – Lilienthal
    Feb 8 '16 at 10:48
  • 1
    If you haven't, take the JPLT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test).
    – Kai
    Feb 8 '16 at 17:46

Better would be something like:

My childhood dream was to live abroad. I chose Japan and took language classes in college. After college graduation I bought a one-way ticket to Tokyo and found a job. Like many people, I really learned spoken Japanese by just repeating the Japanese I heard every day.

This avoids lying. And it's an impressive enough tale for interview purposes. Then you can really impress them with your skills, education, and job ability.

Whatever exaggerations and/or lies you want to tell your friends informally in order to break the ice, would be your choice.

Should I say that I took Japanese classes in college, or that I learned Japanese by living there?

You can say both. And you can choose to say them without lying. Or not.

  • I can agree with what you're saying about how to handle serious interviews: just the facts. But, I'll just say that culturally, one needs to self-deprecate. When casually meeting people for the first time, it works to insist every day is a struggle with the language (even if false). Let them complement you on your skills. In an interview, I can't image saying (even if true): I took the hardest language classes, I got the best internships, I got the best jobs, I went to the best graduate school, etc. You just cannot say that. You must self-deprecate. But, maybe it is risky.
    – david.t
    Feb 9 '16 at 4:45
  • @david So-called self-deprecating language is more about style and cultural-lingual finesse. It doesn't mean to withhold true credentials or say untruths. On the other hand, a line like "I went to the best graduate school" (boasting language) is not recommended in any job interview, whether it is in Japan or elsewhere.
    – Brandin
    Feb 9 '16 at 10:13

In an interview you TELL THE TRUTH, because you may have to prove it. You studied Japanese formally at college, and you've been expanding your knowledge and practicing it in Japan since 200X. To anyone who has studied a language for a short time, it's the second that makes more of an impression.

Don't claim anything in an interview that you cannot back up. Unsure about Japanese but with some languages a speaker can actually tell if you learnt formally or informally and there may be someone in the interview who doesn't look Japanese but speaks it well enough.

Building rapport is something you don't really have time to do in an interview beyond the most fleeting, and being caught out lying negates that slight advantage. If I was interviewing you I'd more than likely ask you some questions in Japanese (not that I know Japanese) and judge like that, I'd have little or no interest in how you acquired the language and even less in listening to a longwinded story about it.

I studied the language of the country I'm in before moving, but was hard put to hold a real conversation, but I learnt a lot more practicing it with the natives and I'm now fluent. I have caught out a lot of people claiming fluency in both English and the vernacular in interviews. They're either working somewhere else, or still unemployed. I have even discarded professional translators with years of experience just because their spelling was not good.


I think living and working in Japan sounds FAR more impressive than saying you took a class. And it's true! (I'd omit the bit about the risk by just moving there.)

Presumably, the interview will be in Japanese so they will be able to see if you are fluent. Whether you took a class or learned online or whatever isn't really relevant once you speak the language.

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