Monthly Archives: November 2012

English and perception: a new perspective

This post has been brewing for a few weeks, and tonight I feel ready to write it. I’m writing in response to a post by none other than myself, written a little over a year ago when I was studying abroad near Tokyo. It was about a young stranger’s passing use of English to me and the prejudice that, at the time, I thought that incident highlighted. I feel differently about this topic now, and I’d like to explore why.

I still agree in large part with some of the arguments I made — in particular, that code-switching (switching to another language, dialect, accent, etc.) is a linguistic strategy that’s powerful and makes statements about the speaker, the listener, and their linguistic and cultural environment. Language mediates every single human connection, and any linguist, anthropologist or sociologist will tell you that even the most casual linguistic joke “speaks” to us at a deeper level about how people see and relate to one another.

But being a teacher and working closely with teenagers here has really changed my view on the motives and emotions at work behind kids’ (and adults’) use of English in Japan. I suspect that if last October’s situation happened to me today — if a high school student passed me on the street and said two words to me in English — I’d smile and maybe even respond in English. I’ve certainly had practice by now: every day in the halls of my junior high school, I field “Hallo” after “Hallo,” as well as the occasional “How are you?” or just my name said in an incredulous tone (maybe the kids forget that I exist, or they’re perpetually amazed by my non-Japaneseness).

It was when two girls shyly spoke English to me in the bathroom between classes today that I realized what I’ve been figuring out on JET, and the reason I’m writing this post: using a foreign language is exciting and terrifying. Speaking that foreign language with a native speaker is an electrifying experience for many students, a chance to take part in cultural exchange without leaving the familiar spaces of their halls and classrooms. Like my students, I’ve felt the awareness of myself as a “global citizen” (however limited or temporary) as I’m conducting a conversation in another language.

But I think the experience is more thrilling for these teenagers than it is for me. I’m an adult who’s had the privileges of a college education, studying abroad and traveling to different countries; for kids like the high school kid last year, seeing a foreigner on the street may well be the most exotic, global experience they’ve had. It seems natural to me now that students here would jump at the chance to use English, even if it’s just a passing politeness to a stranger who looks funny.

The other facet of English in Japan that my old post doesn’t take into account is the unique position of English in the world as compared to any other language. I drew a comparison to English speakers using Spanish in the United States, but these two situations are not equal. We can’t deny that English really is a “global language,” a language charged with political and economic power. A connection between an English speaker and a speaker of another language involves two distinct positions that aren’t interchangeable; there’s a global privilege that all English speakers possess, whether we are comfortable with it or not. (Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying that English speakers are in any way better than other speakers, nor that we somehow have control and agency with respect to this privilege; it’s institutional, part of an overarching structure.)

So what do we do with this privilege that chance or design has granted us? Hold up a measuring stick and stoically demand total linguistic equality (as I’m afraid I flirted with in my old post)? I no longer think that’s the best course of action. I think we should dive in alongside English learners and experience the joy of foreign language and “cultural exchange,” as vague and cheesy as it sounds. We can strive to be more aware of the systems that put English speakers and Japanese speakers, for example, in different positions. Maybe we can even set our sights on freeing languages from a political and economic hierarchy. But to start with, I’m letting go of my pride and accepting that being a native English speaker abroad involves a whole lot of greetings and niceties. And that these “Hellos,” while empty of literal meaning, are a big deal to the shy teenagers who utter them.