Linguistically on the Job
I had my first dream fully in Japanese the other day. Not to say this is a first: I’ve had plenty of dreams in the past that involved the other language. But this was the first time I had a dream almost completely in Japanese. Yes, I know dreams are just one of the things people should never talk about, so I won’t bore you with the details. I will say the dream had me speaking some pretty fast and wild Japanese, with words and phrases saved only for the dramatic. Out of what I remember, at least.
Most likely this happened because I’ve been actively studying and hearing the Japanese language every day for the last two years. I like to believe I’ve come far in my Japanese studies, but I still have a while to go. However, there are many times right when I’m about to practice I run into an all too familiar situation:
What happens when the other person you’re speaking to only wants to speak English?
While I have a breadth of examples to choose from, I feel a couple of recent anecdotes exemplify this trend.
One day I walked into a store to buy a new game (for the inclined, it was Metal Gear Solid V). As I went to the counter, the clerk looked at me and muttered something softly in English. Not really sure what he said, I habitually bowed as he rang up the copy. He then asked me, “Can you make card?” While it took a few seconds to process that he was asking if I wanted to sign up for a point card, I replied in Japanese that I’d like one. As he hands me the form, and points, saying “Name. Address. Birthday. Boy. Girl. Phone. Please.” in English. After getting the card processed, he asserts “The fee for the card is free.” I thank him (in English) and he replies with an enthusiastic “thank you” (in Japanese), as many of the chain-store employees are required to give.
There are also two Family Marts I regularly visit by my house. At both of these Family Marts, there are some particular employees who like practicing their English with me. However, these interactions could not be any more different.
At Family Mart 1, a newbie employee will greet me with an enthusiastic “HELLO” every time I visit. As I give him the casual “Hey” or “Sup?” he’ll try to parrot, but under a hushed breath. After I pay, he’ll part me with a enthusiastic “GOOD…BYE!” Sometimes I’ll say “Thanks” or “See ya,” which he’ll then mutter in Japanese he’s not really sure if he said anything right. The other day I prompted him to just say “Thank you” at the end of the business transactions, as I think it sounds a lot better. The interactions are fine, if not a little difficult to get a handle on which language I should reply, but I understand he’s young and I’m one of the only foreigners around that maybe spice up his shift.
At Family Mart 2, the manager always gives me an enthusiastic “Good Morning!” She also tends to parrot any phrase or words I say, specifically my “Thanks” to her, but in the same energetic tone as her greeting. As I leave, I notice the biggest smile on her face as she goes to continue her work. Honestly, it’s a highlight of the morning.
I should add, at this point, I’ve been prompted to handle all of these situations in Japanese. From my study abroad days till now, I’ve tried to use as much Japanese as possible so I too may increase my linguistic skills. I’ve certainly evolved from my excessive pointing and confusing “Yes” answers to non-Yes/No questions of my first months studying abroad.
But now that I’m in a position of teaching my native tongue, it’s hard to judge where my “Japanese student” position begins and ends. I still firmly believe while I’m living in Japan I should learn and use as much Japanese as I can, but it seems very often, right when I’m ready to practice, the other party has decided they are going to practice their second language as well. I’ve best described this to other people by punching both of my fists together, each acting as one person wanting to speak one specific language. I, and many other people I know, have had entire conversations speaking Japanese while the Japanese person only replies in English.
Before anyone says “You’ve already talked about this!”, that conversation was mainly about me and the perception I didn’t speak any Japanese. That issue gets both better and worse everyday, but I do seem to be making more progress with the people around me. What I’m talking about now though is the behavior of the other party.
And I’ve said it before: I do believe part of the reason why I am here is to let the Japanese people around me practice their English. And it’s not that I hate when someone decides to have the conversation in English, but it sure is a bummer when I decided to be “Japanese Student” for the day.
I have always had the stance that conversations should be held in the language that is best understood by both parties; Whichever language gets across both the correct intention and tone should be spoken. But that stance almost goes against the entire idea of learning a new language. Perhaps some Japanese people feel the same frustration when I decide I’m only going to speak Japanese. But I can’t speak to that side of that argument.
While disappointing, this is not a post where I come to some grand solid conclusion. Honestly, I don’t think there is a right answer. I’m more than positive others have mused over this question as well, regardless if they are in Japan or elsewhere. Rather, it’s something that I’ve pondered a lot about since arriving, and perhaps provide some more perspective on the tightrope that is teaching in a foreign country. If you have your own ways of handling these kind of situations, I’d love to hear it.
In one view, I guess I should be happy there are people out who do want to practice with me. The students I work with far, far too often will not say anything because they’re so caught up whether or not they need to a) speak English to Japanese to me and b) how much Japanese knowledge I have, to the point where they end up saying nothing at all.
If there is any solution, I have to imagine it’s one of moderation. Cultural exchange should go both ways as far as it can. Perhaps it’s just a matter of being more humble at some times, and more assertive at others. It’s a quandary I’m sure differs from person to person, but as long as one tries to make those linguistic fists flying into fist bumps, I think that can be labeled as an accomplishment for everyone.