Leggo my eigo

Many years ago, when I was a teenager in the late 80s and early 90s, the cult that I was raised in had a propaganda magazine called “Youth <insert year here>” where leaders of the cult would attempt to be relevant to the youth of the day, and most of the time, they just came off as condescending.

I remember very little about that magazine, to be honest.  I remember the very first magazine that came out had a large photo of the cult leader’s face adorning the front, inside was a crossword puzzle of trivia from the cult leader’s autobiography, and it went on like that.  About the only bright spot was Monte Wolverton’s drawings.  For the most part the attempt at trying to be relevant to the teens of the time fell completely flat, as such magazines are wont to do.  It’s about as jarring as watching a middle aged, balding caucasian guy trying to rap about minivans or computers.

Still, a broken clock is right twice a day.  I remember an article they wrote about Japan.  This was at a time when the Japanese culture was just starting to make inroads around the world as “cool”, and I think they were trying to nip that in the bud.  They talked about a “cultural superiority” that they felt the Japanese had – and narrowed down on the fact that they insisted on completely mispronouncing English words.  As they put it, their word for “baseball” was basubouru, and if you tried to correct them, they would correct you.

Sadly, I have seen some hints that this, while likely not quite as widespread as they would have liked us to believe, is not entirely false.  The very first video I watched was the “Morning Musume English Lesson”, and in that same episode, they had English “shiritori”, where you were supposed to connect words by their last syllables.  What they were doing was many things, but it was not English.  For what they actually ended up doing was taking the katakana butchering of English words and using those .  So “toilet” became “toireto”, etc.  Probably massively simplified the game for them, and I can’t blame them for that, but the truth is that what they were doing had only a passing resemblance to English.

I remember also seeing that in an AKBingo video, where an English speaking girl said “Follow me on Instagram and Twitter” in a normal American accent, and they could not understand a single word she said.  She repeated it in Japanese, and they understood it then, and said “Oh, that’s cool!”  It is.  But for all of the English classes they had, they couldn’t even understand a basic English word that was shared across cultures without having someone spell it out for them.

I have maintained previously that the language that many Japanese speak and think it’s English, is not.  It bears a passing resemblance and shares its grammatical structure with English, but it’s almost unrecognizable.  I’m not entirely sure the cult leaders who called this “cultural superiority” were correct – I think it’s probably the fault of those who are trying to teach them English and failing, and the Japanese simply not knowing better.

In my Japanese lessons, there is not much emphasis on proper pronunciation.  One of my co-students pronounces “me” with a long A sound.  There is usually very little attempt to pronounce the “r”s properly, and there is a kind of English sing-song in the pronunciation that I doubt a Japanese person would recognize or respect.  In a very real way, we are not speaking Japanese, in the same way that Japanese do not tend to speak English.  I try hard to get the pronunciation right (as best I know) and even then, I often get it wrong because I introduce stresses into the word without realizing I did it until after the fact.

Japanese would – rightly- want me to work on my Japanese pronunciation so they could understand me.  Perhaps I would have an American “accent”, but I think that’s alright, as long as they can understand what I’m trying to say.  I don’t think it’s too much to ask to expect the same in return.  Of course, just as with the Japanese, we love when they make an attempt to learn and understand our language – and we’re often more than willing to forgive errors in pronunciation, just as I would expect them to – but I don’t think it’s too much to ask to at least have them recognize that what they are speaking is not really English.  It’s not good when you think you’re really good at a language and are barely understandable.

For the Japanese folks that may or may not be reading, here’s how you can tell if you’re speaking not-English: if you put vowels where they are not written in the word.  English is very precise with how we write words, even though they may sometimes be pronounced unpredictably:  if there are no vowels between consonants, then there are no vowels between consonants.  Full stop (pardon the pun).  I can’t think of any exceptions offhand, so it’s a good rule of thumb.  Try to remove those vowels and the ones at the end, and you’re halfway there.

 

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