“O MAI GAAA”: On Japanese-Altered English, Making Language Boring, and GRE Questions
Imagine you’re me for a moment: living in Japan for a few years, have a considerable amount of Japanese under your belt, and one day you find yourself at any given net cafe taking a four hour practice GRE test when this reading section question appears.
For those who, understandably, don’t feel like ruining their eyesight squinting at the small text, the left paragraph goes into detail about how Japanese commercials use foreign languages, from English to French and Italian, to heighten their sense of priority and significance. “The viewer usually does not understand [the foreign words], but the connotations of prestige associated with these languages are enough to warrant their use.”
The question reads as follows-“Which of the following would provide the best justification for the existence of English in Japanese commercials, despite the fact that most Japanese do not understand English?”
And from the variety of answer choices, the answer is #1-“To many Japanese, the mere voicing of an English word evokes a cosmopolitan splendor, thereby conferring sophistication onto whatever is being advertised.”
I would now like you to watch the following video which is a collection of Japanese commercials from early February of this year. Keep a mental track every time an English word/phrase (or what sounds like the Japanese pronunciation of an English word) is used or seen.
I think the important thing to remember here is that these commercials are not being targeted towards a foreign audience. These are made by Japanese people, for Japanese consumers. And yet, there was an exorbitant amount of English words/phrases interspersed within the ads.
Now, I fully understand the stance that most Japanese have learned or taken classes in English in some capacity, whether it is during their higher or lower education. I also have no doubt there are people on those advertising teams who do speak a fair amount of English. But can I just point out the ad featuring ninja-ladies and spouted “BE CONSIDERATE” and “CHANGE YOURSELF” was for boat racing?
And without the context that the Universal Studios Japan ad used “RE-BOOOOOOOOOOOOORN” to refer that the Jurassic Park ride was under construction and recently opened up, what the hell would that even mean to a) Japanese people who don’t know that word and b) people outside Japan who don’t know about the reopening?
Welcome to modern Japanese!
For any Japanese language students or English speaking people living in Japan, the immense amount of random English that is thrown into everyday vernacular is no surprise. One can go out for a date and order a “KEEKI SETTO” (cake set), “HOTTO KOOHII” (hot coffee), and “SOFUTO KURIIMU” (ice cream), afterwards heading to a “GEEMU CENTAA” (game center/arcade) and play some “BILIARDOZU” (Billiards). Then you remember you have to send an email to your work supervisor about your “MAI NAMUBAA” (“my number” or the Social Security and Tax Number system).
This isn’t even taking into account the foray of English phrases that are making their way into the zeitgeist, including but not limited to “DONMAI” (Don’t mind/Don’t worry about it), the aforementioned “MAI” which includes “MAIPEISU” (My pace, or going by one’s own pace), “MAIHOMU” (My home), and a myriad of others. Students about to go onto High School visit during the “OOPEN KYAMPASU” (Open Campus) hours while the Middle Schools have “OOPEN SUKUULU” (open school) for the entering students.
The most egregious version of this I have ever heard was during a Takarazuka performance where the actress proclaimed she was going to “GUREIDO APPU SURU” (“I’m going to grade up!” (??)).
Watch any Japanese TV program and you’ll also see the comedians of the week spouting random English for the sake of “comedy” or whatever else those people try to express.
I see this with my students all the time, who will learn one random English phrase and use it repeatedly, without even knowing the true usage of the word set. And much like the above example, even when the student does say whatever phrase, it’s almost certain that their friends or people around them will start howling with laughter. I can’t even go a day without a kid saying “Good Morning!” to me, which is immediately followed by the speaker and their friends guffawing. I have noticed this from mostly younger people, but older folks are not absent from the same kinds of reactions. And this has been both at work, work-related events and other events in random cities.
Famed soccer player Ronaldo experienced this too when a Japanese kid spoke to him and Portuguese, only for the audience to start laughing during his questions. Yes, I know, they were not laughing at his ability, but the whole “laughing while faced with a foreign language” occurrences are real (and believe me there are multitudes of explanations as to why people do it).
And as an American, and native English speaker, for the longest time I never could grasp as to why speaking English here always got that kind of response. In America, you don’t see your friends keeling over because you ordered a Burrito in Spanish. If anything, it’d be because you actually said something funny with more context, not “buenos dias.”
I started to understand more once I was faced with that GRE question, which obviously had no idea about my situation. English, for all it’s perceived “elegance,” is still viewed as something “high class” or something that, as far too many Japanese people have told me, “cannot be understood.”
Despite what one may think with all the English shotgunned in ads, TV and pop culture, the Japanese Education ministry recently released a report that Japanese students continue to fail to meet the English standards set by the ministry. I think there’s a lot of reasons that can be attributed to this, but apart from the usual suspect of how classes are run, I think a part of it that is never really brought up is the above mentioned thinking process of many Japanese people thinking that English is of some sort of “higher order,” “can’t be understood,” “so foreign,” or any combination of the three.
At my larger school, I have a third year I’ve been working with recently. She is half Japanese, but by all accounts she looks very American: white, blonde, blue eyes. She’s also very fluent even though she’s lived in the same area in Japan for the vast majority of her life, so we end up talking every now and then. However, there have been times when we were chatting where students (and TEACHERS!) alike will be saying to each other “wow, that’s so cool,” “I can’t understand a thing!” and other obvious eavesdropping remarks that they think they’re saying quietly, but are actually saying within earshot. Even though her and I are just talking everyday conversational stuff, they think it’s something otherworldly.
But don’t think English speakers are excused for this kind of behavior either! The more I see this side of the foreign language acquisition, I see plenty of westerners flailing over Japanese phrases, words, and sayings as if, simply because it’s in Japanese, it makes it more “special.” There’s a whole tumblr page dedicated to this same fawning adoration.
It was in writing this, and thinking about my mixed-race student, where I finally cemented on what might actually help with English acquisition: we need to make English boring.
I know that seems counter-intuitive, but hear me out. Despite the fact most schools here are primarily teaching English for entrance exams, there have actually been times where I have been able to present some more cultural things or in ways that English is just another way to communicate. We as ALTs, or whatever ESL teacher, need to show more of that later aspect: Just like the student’s native language, English is just another way to say “Good Morning,” “Where’s the bathroom” and “Is there any meat in this salad?” It’s not anything more or less extravagant than anyone else’s native tongue.
Sure, there are other feelings and emotions that can be expressed by learning another language, and being bi-lingual greatly enhances any one person’s employment possibilities, but learning how to say something in any other language doesn’t make it any more “special” than your own. It may sound cooler to you because it’s foreign, but to another person it’s just another boring, ordinary word.
I’m not saying this idea is a cure-all for all the problems teaching English abroad. I’m simply trying to think of ways that my students and the people around me can actually learn and, more importantly, retain this language they seem to put such a priority on. We need to make the language just another form of communication as opposed to something to fetishize.
Maybe then my students will laugh at my jokes instead of every time we say hello. Maybe.