By the time I left Japan, my Japanese was pretty good. I could make myself understood for most topics of general conversation. I was constantly praised for how good my Japanese was. In fact, I didn't even need to be that good - frequently, just uttering a basic phrase, something really simple like konnichiwa (hello), or arigatoo (thank-you), would be enough to trigger an outpouring of effusive praise. Actually, my Japanese was pretty rubbish. I studied it for 3 years in primary school, 5 years in high school, spent a year living in Japan, and could just barely manage most topics of general conversation, yet every day I got praised for my ability.
When Hunter and I went to the Czech Republic in 2007, we could converse pretty normally with my cousins, one of whom is about the same age as us, the other two a little older. We had to pick our words a little carefully, and sometimes explain ourselves, but my cousins could all converse about a far greater range of topics than I could converse about in Japanese. One of my cousins was near the bottom of her class in English, yet we could still converse just fine.
What do my experiences in these countries show? Firstly, the Japanese (on the whole), are incredibly pleased to see that someone has made an effort, any effort, to learn their language. I imagine the Czechs would be pretty happy if
someone bothered to learn their language too - it's even less likely than
someone learning Japanese. I can't really remember, because it wasn't something I personally experienced.
Secondly, in both these countries, everyone learns another language, usually English. The Czechs manage to teach English to an incredibly high standard, such that by then end of high school, a not-academically inclined student can still speak English better than I could speak Japanese after a year in the country. The Japanese level of English is not so high, but is probably still of a higher level than LOTE (Languages Other Than English) is taught here, and here only the students who are interested learn a foreign language.
Most Australians don't bother to learn another language, and a distressing number of closed-minded parents object to their children being taught another language ("Children these days can't do basic maths and English, why waste time on a useless foreign language?"). Because of this, we are limited in our experiences, and this makes us, as a group, prejudiced. Whereas in Japan, people were thrilled to see that I had tried hard, and learned some Japanese, here in Australia, we tend to set the minimum standard as perfect English with just a hint of an accent. Near-perfect English, but with a moderate accent? It's just too hard to understand, why should we have to make the effort to understand them when they've come to our country? Having never struggled with learning a language themselves, many Australians completely lack understanding and empathy towards people who can't quite make themselves understood. People exhibit resentment for having to listen to someone with accented English, and as privileged monoglots, see imperfections in a person's English as a sign of laziness, something they could fix if only they put in a little more effort, instead of recognizing how much work that person has put in, just to be where he or she is.
Learning a language is hard, learning a language as an adult is harder, and losing an accent is harder still. If you can only speak English, then chances are that you have no idea just how hard it is. Same goes for growing up bilingual. Being able to effectively communicate in a language that's not your native tongue takes a huge investment of time, effort, and not a small amount of natural ability.
If someone has made the effort to learn English, that person has done almost all of the work. The least we can do is put in the effort to try and understand. As with all things, it gets easier with practice. Spend a bit of time listening to a
variety of Englishes and actually making an effort to understand, and
you'll find that it really isn't that hard. And if you are having trouble understanding? Don't be afraid to ask for clarification, the vast majority of people won't mind, after all, they want to be understood.