Fluently Worrying

In my daily life I think a lot about language. How to use the Japanese language correctly, my choice of vocabulary and grammar when addressing my students in English, my use of tone and expression, the physicality of my language, it all gets thrown together in a jumbled mess of simplified English and broken Japanese.

The thing is, this mess needs to convey an idea that doesn’t come naturally to most people and certainly not to Japanese teenagers.

The idea that in order to learn a language you have to not only be unafraid of making mistakes but care enough to want to fix those very same mistakes.

It’s a difficult balance.

One thing I don’t do is sugarcoat it. I don’t pretend that what they’re studying is easy, that it has a sense of logic that they ought to be able to grasp easily. Language doesn’t work like that and a language born of so many people and cultures as English is a hodgepodge.

More than that it’s a sadistic, cacophonous, beautiful, shambles of a language.

And I love it for it.

However, for teenagers this cluttered lingua franca is encountered in an environment where the wrong answer is to be feared because a wrong answer symbolizes more than, ‘I don’t know right now,’ it often feels like it means, like it displays to the entire room, ‘I will never know the right answer.’

I can remember that feeling well from High School French or Spanish classes where we were dragged through a textbook kicking and screaming, ticking boxes and attempting to build on linguistic steps when the foundations hadn’t fully dried yet.

If you take a quick ride on any train in Japan it would be abundantly clear that this kind of feeling continues to linger on long into adult life here. Dotted around every carriage are advertisements for an endless variety of English conversation schools promising to improve an obviously faltering and feeble grasp of the English language.

If I could change one thing about Japan it’d be these blasted adverts. I’d replace them with ones that say,

English is hard. It is not impossible. It takes at least three thousand hours of regular study for a native speaker of a non-European language to reach an advanced level. Please stop worrying and enjoy your day.

Better yet, what’s the Japanese for Keep Calm and Carry On?


8 responses to “Fluently Worrying

  1. The Japanese word for Keep Calm and Carry On is Hakuna Matata.

    I just woke up from and awful nightmare (being hit on by a butch lesbian) and was afraid to fall back asleep. So I checked my email and was pleased to read a post from you. Feeling better now.

    Remember what I said, Hakuna Matata. Make sure you tell them that.

  2. “It’s a sadistic, cacophonous, beautiful, shambles of a language.” That’s the best description of English I’ve ever read. Now I’m very curious to know your definition of Japanese! 😉

    PS: I sometimes tell my (more advanced) students, “I can’t teach you English. I can only help you to learn it yourself.”

    • There’s certainly that element to language study. The odd thing is Japanese students are prepared to put in the hours of hard work at school. However, they generally are so afraid of making mistakes that self-study never seems to occur to the vast majority of them.

      My definition of Japanese? I think I wrote about it already at length. In my case it’s a woman who is beguiling but obviously no good for me. https://marshmallowsensei.com/2012/04/16/love-hate-coffee-kanji-and-repeat/

      Thanks for commenting too! Very kind words indeed.

      • Oh! Oops! I remember that beguiling post.

        (Please observe the time of my previous comment: 7:49 am. It was before my first coffee of the day. Is that an acceptable excuse for a memory lapse?)

  3. Certainly is. Absence of caffeine before 8am means I’m not even technically human till an hour later than usual, just a lifeless, grumpy, husk of a pod person.

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