Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Language of High Status Foreigners

This is a letter I wrote to a colleague some years ago who challenged me on two questions. First, he called me on my apparent lack of shame over not having full mastery of Japanese after so many years in Japan, a topic I deal with at greater length in How Come Your Japanese Isn’t Better than it is? (See under: My life in Japan). Then we differed over whether my attitude was worth studying as part of the greater picture of language attitudes, as a way of informing the sociolinguistic side of language acquisition. I said it was – if somebody wanted to undertake the task (I didn’t) – and he suggested such a study would only further add to the already overstuffed pile of studies on the language patterns of the elite.

For what it’s worth, here is my response.

… To get back to our conversation, I have no direct personal interest in justifying the failure of power-structure native speakers of English to learn Japanese. In my own case, I accept responsibility for my choices. I see them as choices. I could have, at several turns in my career in Japan, taken the time necessary – even the extended time it would have taken – to get my Japanese to the point where I became persuasive and able to keep up better. I have had other priorities all along. I like to say that had I known back in 1970 that I would be here in 2004 and beyond that I would have gotten serious about my Japanese, and I’m not lying. But the truth is I don’t have major regrets. I lived this life trajectory and none other, and I’ve always believed one has to work with what one’s got and that’s the end of it.

But that said, I think it is an interesting psycho- or sociolinguistic phenomenon that speakers of English, especially teachers of English, in Japan have an advantage which they cannot honestly be expected not to use. While some make choices to bear down and learn Japanese to a near-native degree, most don’t because they don’t have to to function at a high status level. I can’t tell you how many times – I trust is has been the same for you – people have made comparisons like “When I went to America, I had to learn English; when you come to Japan you should learn Japanese. There’s no difference.” I take that as pure bullshit. There is a major difference in that if they (we’re usually talking about students getting degrees in my experience) didn’t learn English well they’d get nowhere close to their goal, while my goals – being able to hold down a rewarding job and enjoy a wide circle of friends – do not depend on an analogous level of Japanese proficiency. The different contexts are the independent variables.

I don’t think you were questioning the fact, but it seemed to me as if you were making the case that there was nothing there worth studying. My argument is that wherever there is misunderstanding there is something worth studying. Wherever there is pragmatic difference there is something worth studying. It’s not at all a given that this is a tit-for-tat situation, this “in American we learn English; here you learn Japanese” argument.

We need to separate the personal from the social phenomena. On a personal level, I don’t believe I have a moral obligation to learn Japanese. If they discover that my Japanese is not up to their expectations, then they can jolly well change their expectations. I have made choices on the basis of self-interest, exactly as one does when one moves to an English-speaking country from Japan and chooses to participate in the goodies or not. “After all these years, the fact that your Japanese is only this good shows that you have no respect for Japan.” “You’re lazy.” “You have no right to expect people to use English; you’re in Japan. Here we use Japanese.” All these things I have heard more than once over the years. They’re all people’s opinions. They are not wrong. They are not right. They are opinions. And I have my responses. To the first anything between “Screw you, toots” and “I don’t design my life to satisfy cultural nationalists.” To the second, I respond, “Damn straight!” and to the third I respond “This is my planet; I speak any of its languages I’m able to choose from. If you don’t understand me it may be because you are not my intended audience.”

But on a sociolinguistic level, this is interesting. It’s even interesting that you should see it as a moral issue. This issue, like any issue in which the choice of attitudes and responses one particular speaker has laid out before him in a language use or language acquisition situation, makes a story. It may not be your story or a story you personally want to hear, but it’s a part of the bigger sociolinguistic picture.

When people look at social situations analytically they come up with “common sense” explanations. You know how often so-called common sense is nonsense. That’s what justifies social science research in the first place. This graduation thesis I have been working on lately takes questions the assumption that kids “learn languages naturally.” In fact, as my student was trying to demonstrate, it’s anything but natural. It’s jerky, problematic, and tied to all sorts of psychological distress. The study of her particular language acquisition trajectory is interesting because it makes the familiar strange, as Geertz suggested ought to be the goal of ethnography, along with making the strange familiar.

I question your statement that there are some things not worth studying and that you could be the judge of what was not worth studying. In principle, I can agree, but in the marketplace of ideas, I am loathe to assume the role of arbiter of those choices. There are tons of things that I don’t want to read about, that’s a given. And to me personally 99% of all the social science research I read isn’t worth as much as a sip of good wine, a roll in the hay, or a good night’s sleep afterwards. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth its weight in the bigger picture of how the world works.

I think wherever there are faulty assumptions made there is a field fertile for good social science research. I think you have allowed your ideology to interfere with an honest question. Why is it power structure people do bad things? It’s easy to wipe your hand across the surface and blame it all on class structure or some other package deal. But I think it’s worth somebody’s time to poke into the question of why it is English speakers use their status to remain inside an English-speaking cocoon, if that’s not making too much of the phenomenon. It’s not just a moral issue of the good people who put out the effort to be more open to the non-English-speaking world vs. the bad people who don’t; it’s also an issue of practicality, a line of least resistance like any other line of least resistance which explains behavior.

You’re not going to do it, and I’m not going to do it, but somebody ought to. Why you would oppose the idea I can’t understand. There is always the possibility of surprise. If I were a thesis advisor I might well say no to this project on the grounds there was much more inviting stuff out there. And I would have personal reservations, as I do (I share this with you more than you think, probably) with any power-structure research done by people with no apparent awareness of the privileged context in which they are working. But I would not call a halt to it, or even call it an unworthy pursuit if somebody went after it anyway.

There is something wrong with shutting down possibility. We do it all the time because of limited resources. But if the resources are there, whether it’s to send a spaceship to Mars or better understand dandruff, I think we ought to get behind the impulse to expand our human knowledge. In the field of sociolinguistics I think the language use patterns of power structure people ought to be seen neutrally and not dismissed on political grounds.

We ought never to let our politics limit our curiosity.

No comments: