Tag Archives: language

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


Just Because: The Eloquent Misuse

“How can I refuse, such an eloquent misuse of a phrase.” Idlewild

I always thought that it would creep up on me like a slightly balding panther, stealthily, sneaking, claws primed to strike and slash away a crop of young, thick hair from my growing brow. Growing brow, I prefer that phrase to gradually receding hairline. It proffers more of a sense of victory than the defeatist linguistic equivalents of retreat.

Yes, there was always going to be a point of no return when it came to turning into my father. I figured in my teenage years that it would be the day I finally received the sort of hairline that the Japanese playfully refer to as resembling Mt. Fuji. Inevitably the attack arrived, but as it turned out, my father’s influence on me has shorn through linguistically rather than in a follicle sense.

Well so far at least.

It is a phrase wielded with ease by parents everywhere when the exhaustion of offering yet another explanation is too much to bear. At other times it’s just the quickest way of stating that something ‘is’ and won’t be changing simply because your adolescent mind is unable to fathom that the logic at work isn’t about to shift at your request.


Children have daily experience with, “because,” adults; not so much. As such, explaining this concept to an adult requires a touch more finesse. Sometimes I can offer a reason for a way of phrasing something and other times the mind simply boggles and I have to um, ahh, well, etooo (Japanese for um) and anoooo (Japanese for ahh) my way through a thicket of hedging to reach my point.

That point being, that I’m afraid it’s just the way it is. We ride on a train, on a bus and in a car. I know how ridiculous it sounds to a foreign listener and I sympathize but even if I knew the etymology of every jumbled bit of English language I can’t always translate it into Japanese. Even if I could I probably can’t tell you why most of the time because even linguists haven’t the faintest.

Inevitably, the final roadblock is socialization. All those times that everyone is told “because” in his or her youth has only served to hardwire in a certain fashion of thinking. So when that hardwiring comes into contact with the ancient foundations of a language, itself a tangle of roots and branches long untouched by a gardener, well it has a little problem coping sometimes.

In practical terms there is such a thing as correct way to say something, yet the nebulous nature of language means that it may not always remain that way. The beauty of language is that it is alive, it evolves and adjusts to its surroundings, bends and flexes in delightful new ways that thrill the poet and leave the pedant aghast; often one and the same person.

Sadly, many of my students tend to fall into one category or the other when they are dealing with English. I have students of all levels who take great delight in the peculiar logic behind idioms. Others who question why they simply can’t lean on their stock phrases for every situation.

In these cases my decision to tell them “because” comes down to the degree to which their freedom with, or lack of interest in the nuance, of the English language is likely to lead them into trouble or embarrassment.

Now, English, unlike Japanese, is an international language. As much as it may pain me to say it, it does not belong to England. It left home long ago and has grown up perfectly fine without its parent leaning over its shoulder. So I try to tell my more advanced students not to worry, that their phrasing, so long as their meaning is clear is perfectly valid, it’s their English and they can use it generally speaking, however they like.

Then a different problem rears its head,

“But teacher, we want to say it like a native speaker!”



Murdering the Art of Conversation: a silent death

I’ve been contemplating a list of banned phrases lately for my classroom walls. That may seem rather counterintuitive for a person whose profession largely involves the expansion of vocabularies, but I promise there is a benign intent here.

You see Japanese and English are frankly about as disparate as two languages could ever hope to be. It may not be a particularly positive position to take but inevitably when encountering things that can limit or impede your progress in acquiring a new tongue, a language barrier that has more in common with a chasm than a wall is going to be rather hard to miss as you plunge gormlessly into it, your shoelaces artfully tied together in knots of misused grammar.

So yes, it’s hard work, no one ever said learning something as powerful, beautiful and profound as a language would be easy. But the reality is that these natural obstacles can seem like little more than a speed bump when you consider some of the monuments to frustration that students themselves construct to block their way.

In adult classes students are generally interested in improving their conversational skills so I begin every lesson with something open ended to allow them to flex their linguistic muscles, to let them make use of all their years of hard work. So how do many of them choose to answer? By slashing the throat of the conversation, by stamping on the budding tête-à-tête and blowing out the candles early on any possible discussion with a, “So-so” or, “Nothing special.”

It’s usually at this point that I remember that not only does my job involve teaching English but for some people the basic tenets of a conversation. However, if these are self-constructed walls then the foundations they rest on are of a more professional variety. You’d have to go to school for this kind of solid bedrock.

When I asked my sixteen-year-old student last week what he’d done that week I was expecting a list of exams, such is the life of the average high school kid.  So when he mentioned he’d had an English test I inquired further, what exactly had he done?

“Did you have to speak in the test?”


“Any listening?”


“So just writing?”


“So what was the subject of the test?”

“Oral communication.”

Teacher’s brain explodes in blind fury within the confines of his cranium.

Of course it was.


Barbershop Barriers: Tales of tiny men and sharp blades

I was sat in an armchair, a very sharp blade pressed to my face. Wielding the blade in question was a tiny Japanese man. Between us we had little means of communication (this being very early in my time in Japan… during my rather less studious period) and I was not entirely sure what he was asking me. He was polite enough to ask it with a smile. Though when coupled with a tiny razor blade… it was, well, more ominous than reassuring.

This was my first trip to the barber in Japan.

Specifically, the barber, not the hairdressers. Japanese men take their coif rather seriously indeed, whereas the sole instructions I have offered at a hair dresser’s or barber’s, whether English or Japanese, for many years now has been nothing more than a, ‘little trim, please.’ Fortunately it was all I needed the first time I visited my local barber in Nagano-Ken. More recent trips have required, “wait, have we met before?” “How do you know my name?” and, “ohhh, I teach your kid.”

A language barrier can be many things, frustrating, funny, confusing and occasionally, well a bit scary. In most day-to-day situations you can rely on folks being patient and understanding of a faltering grasp of their language. The adult population of Japan being generally quite embarrassed by their standard of spoken English (not entirely their fault… but that’s another blog), and being a phenomenally polite people, will generally praise any effort one makes (deserving or otherwise).

However, when talking to children that gap can seem like a chasm. Think of the meandering sentence path of the average five to seven year old and then remove your ability to understand a good chunk of the vocabulary and you’ll be a smidge closer to my position.  The subject of a conversation can burst from absolutely nowhere, they can be incredibly convoluted and just as often as not utterly identical to the conversation you would have in your own native tongue.

In the case of two high school girls this might mean approximately five minutes of back and forth as to how beautiful each other’s hair is, “You think my hair is cute? No not at all, your new haircut is so much cuter…really? No… really, really? No…” Frankly, now that I think about it, this could be two high school boys.

Kindergarten kids can be a joy for this kind of conversation. They will have just learned a new mildly insulting word and simply spend the next ten minutes calling it each other then promptly collapsing in a fit of giggles.

What always amazes me though is the speed at which some kids can ask me questions. One young kid, only five years old burst through the door of the classroom and immediately blurted out,


“Huh? (In Japanese) Say it again but more slowly please.”

Deep breath

“kujyakuwaeigodenandesuka” (twice as fast)

“Write it for me please”

I check the dictionary

“ah! Peacock!”


Proceeds to do a peacock dance that would have been more helpful at the start of the conversation.

However, from time to time, it’s not just a language barrier, rather a pronunciation issue. The double ‘oo’ sound we have in English can initially be quite difficult for kids on first hearing it. They have a tendency just to make a louder ‘o’ noise and as is natural for them add a vowel to the last letter of the word as 99% of Japanese characters have such an ending.

So, there I am teaching some very young kids different jobs/roles; teacher, student, firefighter…cook.

Me: Who’s this? You don’t know. He’s a cook.

Students: Kok!

Awww crap. 

In these situations it’s an easy fix (so long as I don’t laugh) and within a few attempts they pronounce it correctly and significantly less like a Premier League footballer. However, sometimes the situation is reversed.

Me: Who’s this? He’s a barber.

Students collapse in laughter

Students: BABA!

Me: Barber!

Students collapse again

Students: BABA!

I check my dictionary. Possible meanings, Grandmother…horse riding ground…shit.

Oh shit.

Accidental Adoption: Manners and Stray Families

Jetlagged, weary and still thinking a bit in Japanese having only been on English soil for all of an hour, I lumbered onto the tube, bags in hand and wishing I didn’t have to take the Circle line of all things. Immediately two enormous suitcases caught my eye. They had JAPAN in big letters plastered across them and sure enough on the seats surrounding these great hulking bags sat a rather sleepy, but mostly nervous looking Japanese family.

Half asleep myself, I spotted the only spare seat in the carriage that just happened to be next to this family. I wandered over, dodging other passengers, attempting not to jostle or knock anyone with my rucksack, and without thinking asked the nice family, “Is it ok?” and pointed at the seat.

Fine right? Nothing odd there, except, well… I asked in Japanese. In London. On the tube, where nobody speaks to strangers and certainly not in that stranger’s native tongue.

I got a nervous, “hai/yes” in response and so I slumped down into the seat. Of course that wouldn’t be the end of it though. I could see the family nervously glancing at one another, reflected in the opposite window, wondering whether to engage this utter stranger in conversation. This went on for a minute or two before I felt bad for getting them all in a kerfuffle and turned and asked them where they were going.

Pari, as the Japanese call Paris, was the destination. Followed by a variety of confused questions as to why an Englishman was speaking Japanese (however poorly).

After helping them successfully get off at the right stop, which conveniently also happened to be my stop, they quickly gathered the courage to ask me what they’d clearly wanted to ask me all along, “could I do them a favour?”

Here was their problem; they were staying with their daughter’s friend’s family in Paris. Their daughter’s friend speaks Japanese. However, they’d been unable to get in contact with her as they only had the home phone number. The family of said girl would in all likelihood pick up the home phone, the family that only spoke French and English.


I was immediately handed a mobile phone, already dialing. It rang and rang and I found myself thinking, “Why don’t you ever just not talk to strangers? Bloody plonker.” It rang a little more…

And nobody picked up.

Thank god.

We said our goodbyes, they thanked me for my efforts and waved me on my way as I went with a good friend to get my first taste of English ale for eleven months. Over that beer I began to wonder, how the hell had I managed to accidentally adopt a whole Japanese family?

Japanese politeness that’s how.

I should know better.

Reverse Culture Shock

I couldn’t tell you what it was precisely that I found strangest. I guess it was a combination of things that seemed utterly alien to me. I could read signs, I understood the pointless announcements bellowing out over tannoy systems and people weren’t even glancing at me from across crowded train carriages.

How had it happened that the very place I call home could affect me like that? Nothing was really a surprise as such, yet there was a distinct feeling of separation to begin with, as if someone had turned down all the settings on a TV. I felt more like I was watching my life in analog than living it in glorious real life HD.

I remember when I first arrived in Japan often feeling like I’d spent half my day working through an economics paper, so taxing was the strain on my mind as it attempted to muddle through the inordinate number of signs and symbols that make up the very basics of modern life. In an English speaking country, or even one that makes use of the Roman alphabet the way the mind is able to distinguish between the important and the utterly useless is a skill you already possess and as such your mind makes attempts to streamline its workload by dismissing quickly on an unconscious level what is relevant and what isn’t. Yet, here in Japan that simply isn’t possible and so your mind attempts to grapple daily with doors to which it does not hold the key. It can be a tiring, though ultimately rewarding process when one gets even just a toe in that door. In comparison, England and the sights, smells and sounds of home, while a welcome experience seemed to come all too easily.

Over the course of a couple days it began to fade, this feeling of detachment and life at home took on a semblance of the old sense of regularity. Though even that was fleeting as in my limited time at home I made an attempt to see as many friends and family as I could realistically squeeze in and so most days I found myself living a perpetual stream of Saturdays where I would grab coffee, lunch, dinner or far too many beers with friends and family. My body did not thank me for all this self-abuse of caffeine, fat, salt and alcohol but my mind did. The chance to really switch off, to give my brain some real downtime has been welcome and so I find myself now back in Japan with a real desire to push on, to keep studying and traveling in an attempt to grasp a little more of this distant land that for now I still call my home.

That I can do so is largely down to my wonderful friends and family who managed to find the time to help me distil a frankly ridiculous number of experiences into my time home.

I attended the fairytale wedding of two of my friends, slept two nights on a boat in Southampton while attending the ‘Passage to India’ themed regatta in the village one of my dearest friends now calls home, I got to see my two adorable little second cousins who grow bigger by the day, ate curry and drank ale in the company of my favourite physicists, computer scientist and med student (now Doctor), had a night or two in the ‘udd, found myself proving to a drunk in a bar that I really do live in Japan by having him google this very blog (when he saw the picture at the top of the previous post he said, ‘Woah! Is that your house?!’ ‘No.’ I said, ‘that’s Kiyomizu Temple.’) and even found time to graduate from last years Masters degree in all its pomp and hilarious irony (a video clip of a student had her noting that, ‘the university isn’t the least bit pretentious’, cue brass band announcing the entrants in all their academic finery). Oh and Pad Kee Mao… how I had missed you.

I could easily get a blog post out of every one of the wonderful days spent in the company of the people I love, but I would feel like I am intruding and frankly I couldn’t do you all justice.

You mean more to me than words on a screen could ever convey.

P.S. Sorry to anyone who I skipped in my description of what I got up to. This post is soppy enough without a never ending paragraph.