My understanding is that if you say 私は料理が上手です it might sound like you’re bragging. In this case, it’s better to say 私は料理が得意です. But saying 私は料理が上手ではありません means “I’m not good at cooking”/“I’m not a good cook”, so it doesn’t sound arrogant.
Who did you ask? There’s nothing wrong with 上手ではありません at a fundamental level, but it feels slightly different from 得意ではありません. It sounds a bit more harsh on yourself.
If you were just asking a native speaker, it’s possible they just decided they were going to “correct” you to what they would say more often, regardless of what the intent of someone saying either one actually was.
Natives know what’s natural, but they also don’t inherently know how to make proper corrections, unless they have been trained in language education.
This is one of the problems with Lang-8 and HiNative, where natives will sometimes get a bit overzealous with corrections, correcting anything they personally wouldn’t say, or making incorrect assumptions about the intent of the learner.
And it goes without saying that some teachers can make those mistakes too.
I have also seen that distinction on one of the Japanese From Zero books, where the author specifically said that you should use 得意 when talking about your own skills. I remember also being confused at the time, because I was used to the expression using 上手. But like every other language, there is always a better way to say one thing, so I just accepted it and doesn’t bother me anymore.
I think it’s just that 上手 is kind of meant to be an objective assessment of skill, while 得意 represents your own assessment of skills. The definition of 得意 actually begins with 上手, but goes on to say 自信がある (have confidence in).
Japanese people avoid direct statements when possible, especially with strangers, and using 上手 for yourself is just extremely forward. It says “I’m objectively good” or “I’m objectively bad.” Either might actually be the case, but Japanese people are very unlikely to say things that way, even if people from another culture might say those things the first time they meet someone.
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I accept what you’re saying about over zealous corrections. I guess I’m just a bit miffed that Pimsleur hasn’t qualified the use of 上手 when speaking of yourself. I’m so shy about speaking Japanese as it is and want to trust the resources I am paying for.
Everything I’ve seen uses 上手.
No matter how you say something, there will be people who tell you you’re wrong.
‘correct’ usually means ‘how I say it’.
I’m sure there are others who will say とくいではありません is wrong.
Even though it seems like there’s a resolution to this thread, I wanted to add that I searched around to see if I could find any additional information about the difference between those words.
What I came across was a Japanese site going through the meaning and usage differences, and it corroborated what has already been mentioned in the thread. I’m going to simply summarize the points made on the site.
得意 means 技能に自信がある (have confidence in a skill or ability). It can be used for a variety of things and can be used with regard to the speaker and others people. The opposite of 得意 is 下手.
上手 means 技能を褒める (praise a skill or ability). It can also be used for a variety of actions, but non-active things (such as academic subjects) can feel a little odd, so use 得意 instead. 上手 should only be used with regard to other people and not one’s own actions. The opposite of 上手 is 下手.
Obviously, you have to take this with a grain of salt because these explicit meanings aren’t published on Weblio (where I cross referenced). Specifically it said that 上手 means 技術が優れている (be outstanding at a skill). 得意 was defined as 上手でそのことに自信もある・こと（さま）(The state and/or being outstanding at a skill and also have confidence in that skill).
The inference that can be made is that 上手 implies that you have evidence of being better than others at something, while 得意 seems to put more weight on the individual’s confidence in their ability. So 上手ではありません might be like saying “I’m not outstanding at (something), [but…]”; while saying 得意ではありません is like saying “I don’t have confidence in (something) [because I haven’t excelled in that area]”. So perhaps the Japanese person corrected you because it sounded better to them to say the latter. Like others had mentioned, it wasn’t that Pimsleur taught you something incorrect, it just taught you a way of saying something that may not necessarily be tempered by Japanese cultural virtues (being humble, etc.). I don’t think that’s necessarily grounds to doubt a Pimsleur’s content because that’s a risk of pretty much any resource carries.
Frankly, I just say I’m 下手 when I’m not good at something because it totally negates any positive implication that could be made.
I wouldn’t say anything in the Pimsleur course is wrong (that I noticed), it’s more that the scope is limited due to the very nature of the program. You start delving into details like that and you derail from the whole “conversational in 30 days” idea.
For example, I don’t think they even elaborate at any point that じゃ is a contraction of では which you’ll find first in most textbooks I’ve seen. I could see that really throwing someone for a loop.
But this all goes for your entire study program really. You’re going to learn “all about” X and then find X used in ways you never learned about once you’re out in the wild. Which is why it’s important to consume native media and not just study study study.
So in conclusion, when learning Japanese you’ll find out that nearly everything you learn has a lot of nuances and sometimes textbooks or courses don’t necessarily teach all of them. This doesn’t make them any less good, or incorrect, but it’s impossible to teach everything.