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?