Monthly Archives: December 2014

Converts and Community

I don’t sound like me yet. I’m on my way there but I’m still a long way from being Matt. I’m still Mashu. And Mashu isn’t that fluent a speaker. He uses words in the wrong place, his use of intonation is lacklustre and confusing to native speakers and his grammar can flail wildly from fluid to fail. Mashu will continue to remain, for some time yet, much stupider sounding than Matt.

Matt is my natively constructed self. His words are my own. His voice is my own. He is one hundred percent me. Ok, he’s ninety percent me and ten percent stolen quotes from Yes, Minister and House of Cards. For a brief moment he was 1 percent Battlestar Galactica. Frack.

Mashu however, is a convert. He’s faltering not fluent; taking limited steps, attempting to follow the correct route along the road to being a real, completely grown up speaker of the language. He’ll never quite reach that destination. He can become a 99.9 percent complete Mashu, permanently loading and never fully installed but he won’t reach the high score screen at the end of the game.

But could I give him up? Could I happily part ways with the reams of vocabulary, the hundreds of kanji symbols and the grammar formations that are now blue tacked to my neurons? No. I just couldn’t.

Mashu may not be an especially accurate depiction of Matt but he’s now a large chunk of my native self. You may not be able to get a sense of Matt from my Japanese but Mashu sneaks out when I’m just being me.

In a recent Advanced class my students and I were discussing an article on The Health Effects of Leaving Religion. For a generally unreligious group it struck me that they seemed to have a particularly empathetic reaction. It wasn’t religion as such that stirred the group or myself, nor even the theological or psychological at issues at play when one loses faith. It was the loss of community.

Japan is most certainly a country where a loss of community would be devastating. However, the thing about having a second language, particularly when one reaches an advanced level, is that it grants you access to a new community without necessarily removing you from your original one. At the same moment it allows you to see your own community, and your mother tongue, through a different lens.

It can be an awkward feeling. There’s a disconnect between how you used to see the world and how you see it now. And if culture is based on a perceived set of shared understandings, then the addition of new language, a new framework, inevitably makes you more aware of some of the assumptions you previously made.

But that disconnect isn’t solely down to you. To some native speakers of your new language you’ll forever have only the one foot in the door as you peek in. You’re no native speaker. To speakers of your native language you’re someone who went looking for more. There’s an implicit distrust of that for some people. You deliberately left the village.

There’s potential for this to be a lonely place I suppose. Self exiled from one community and on a short term visa in the other. Yet, I’m not alone. My students aren’t alone. Being a cultural, linguistic and literal expat… well it’s not as big as the monolingual community, but it’ll do.

So, we can’t go home again. We can’t unlearn a language and nor should anyone want to. I suppose though, if one must be caught between two communities, two tongues and two selves it helps if the view ain’t half bad.

Mt. Fuji