Monday, March 19, 2012

In defense of American Japanese

                Kachru and Nelson (2006) state that Inner-Circle speakers are not used to the “code-mixing” phenomenon, and so, for example, using an English word in a French language class tends to be treated as a mistake (p.257). It made me think of what I do in my Japanese classes and how I treat code-mixing phenomenon among my students.

Since the scope of English borrowing in Japanese is phenomenal—8% of the total Japanese vocabulary consists of borrowed words from English—I have had many interesting opportunities in my Japanese classes to “teach” my students Japanese loan words originating from English. It feels odd to teach them English loan words pronounced and written Japanese-ly. For example, the equivalent of the word “basketball” is basukettobōru, and the equivalent of the word “McDonald’s” is makudonarudo. The worst of all is when I have to correct them if they pronounce a loan word in an Anglicized way. I feel guilty not because these words originally belonged to English—which is “their” language—but because I feel like I fail to recognize the legitimacy of their Japanese. My students are speaking English loan words in Japanese with their American accent, and if I correct them, it means I am being dismissive toward their variety of Japanese, which is American Japanese.

            However, when it comes to intelligibility, there comes a problem. If my American students say “hamburger” too American-ly to a Japanese person, there is a high chance that they will not be understood, nor get any hamburgers. They need to say “hanbāgā” to get the meaning across—and, most importantly, in order to actually get a hamburger to eat.

            One of my American friends who lives in Tokyo told me an interesting story. He has lived in Japan more than 10 years now. He uses English at work but he knows that he cannot speak “proper” and “authentic” inner-circle English when he speaks with Japanese people. He says over the years he’s learned how to adjust his English to be intelligible, depending on whom he speaks with, so usually he is successful in communicating with Japanese people. However, he was in a meeting with Japanese people the other day, and they did not understand when he said “Microsoft Silverlight” (a product name). What got them lost was the way my friend said “Silverlight.” He said it in the normal way he would say it to another inner-circle speaker. Usually, my friend knows how to pronounce English words Japanese-ly, but this time he stumbled at trying to remember how to say “Silverlight” correctly (in a Japanese way). The conversation collapsed and after having to repeat himself several times, he ended up writing out the word on a whiteboard. 

            I realize that in my Japanese classes, I actually teach a lot of Japanese English through English-origin loan words. In addition to the value of actually helping students learn the words, it also gives monolingual inner-circle students opportunities to get a grip on a strategy of code-mixing in a Japanese context, and to understand the utility of code-mixing. In doing so, however, I seem to dismiss the legitimacy of American Japanese as a legitimate variety, and to have the effect of encouraging students themselves to not consider the possibility of American Japanese as a legitimate variety. Though American Japanese may not have much demand, or very little practical usage, it should not be downgraded or ignored completely—because it surely does have value in some contexts. And some will still argue that Japanese people should just pronounce English loan words in “proper” English way instead. The study of World Englishes still gets complicated when we start considering “whose” language it is, and I wonder if we can completely let go of the certain possessiveness we have over what we consider “our” language. Perhaps it’s a natural characteristic of language in general that we feel a kind of ownership of the languages we speak natively. Maybe we can’t avoid feeling that way.

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