Sunday, 12 February, 2006

The Language Barrier

The sounds in spoken Japanese are almost a proper subset of English sounds.  Japanese contains only a few sounds that native American English speakers have difficulty making.  In contrast, there are many sounds in English that native Japanese speakers have trouble with, the most noticeable being the "l".  This leads to the stereotype Japanese person in movies using "r" wherever there is an "l," resulting in stupidity such as this.  The truth is that the "r" sound in Japanese is kind of a mixture of our "l," "d," and "r".  Yes, the substitution of "r" for "l" sounds strange to our ears, but Americans' insistence on placing emphasis on certain syllables (i.e. "shin-JU-ku" rather than "shin-ju-ku") is equally difficult for Japanese to understand.

Most Japanese in the cities can speak and understand some English because almost everybody studies English in junior high school.  They typically understand a whole lot more English than they can speak, and many Japanese have a very good grasp of written English, with a understanding of English grammar and vocabulary that would put many Americans to shame.  But they get very little practice speaking English, so their pronunciation is not the best.  A little practice and patience go a long way towards building a mutual understanding.

I had some trouble making myself understood on my first trip until David took me aside and explained that I was speaking to them as though they were native speakers.  I was using slang, colloquialisms, contractions, speaking too fast and slurring my words.  Once I listened to the way he was speaking and tried to imitate it, I was much more able to communicate.  It's not "baby English," but it is very simple.  For example, rather than saying, "Charlie caught and killed a fawn in my back yard," I would say, slowly, "Charlie catch baby deer.  He eat."  (They had asked about the picture of my dog Charlie that serves as the wallpaper on my computer.)

("Baby Japanese," by the way, is how they must speak to me, with a lot of repetition and backing up to explain what certain words mean.  I would be very happy if they could speak Japanese to me on the same level that I speak English to them.  Perhaps my Japanese language skills will improve before my next trip.)

After a day or two of speaking this simple English, David, Matt, and I found ourselves speaking it to each other.  That's not so bad, but when you do it with another native English speaker, they look at you strange.  Saturday I ran into an Australian couple near the fish market and we struck up a conversation.  It took me a few minutes to realize that they were looking at me funny because I was speaking to them in this simple English.  Even then I found myself lapsing back into it while we talked.  I wonder if they walked away thinking that I'm not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

If you study Katakana, in addition to learning how to read menus and such, you'll get a much better understanding of the English spoken by the Japanese.  What they are speaking is very close to "Katakana English."  When you can play and win at the Katakana game (converting the Japanese phonetic spelling of foreign words into understandable English words), your ability to carry on a conversation in English with a Japanese English speaker will be greatly enhanced.  You will learn to make the "r to l" translation in your head, and you can more easily help your counterpart to improve his understanding and pronunciation, too.  It's not always straightforward, but it's great fun.

Most of all, don't be afraid to try.  People in general are very pleased if you make an attempt to speak their language and adhere to their customs.  In my limited experience, I found the Japanese especially grateful and willing to help me with my pronunciation and usage.  They'll laugh good-naturedly if you make a particularly bad blunder, but they will also take the time to explain what you did wrong and help you to improve.  It just seems right that we should do the same for them, especially when we're in their country.