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.


Monday English Colloquialism Corner #1: Goldilocks

Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Sometimes you will hear an English speaker say something like “We’re looking for that Goldilocks sweet spot”.  What does that mean?

As you can see from the story, Goldilocks is a fairy tale, which is a story told to children at a very young age.  It usually has a “moral” to it, but it also sometimes is just a short story meant to entertain children.  It’s usually read at bedtime, so this means that most people know the stories, and the stories have entered our culture as a shared point of reference.  By which I mean, you can just mention a name, such as “Goldilocks”, and everyone knows exactly to what you are referring.  This makes learning about American culture difficult sometimes, because there are many of those cultural landmines that you may not know.

When someone mentions the “Goldilocks sweet spot”, what they are saying is that they are looking for the thing that is “just right”.  Neither too hot nor too cold, neither too hard nor too soft, neither too big nor too small.

You’ll notice in the story that there is also an undercurrent of destruction – whenever Goldilocks finds the “just right” thing, she destroys it.  What do you think is the purpose for this detail in the story?

The Limits of Language

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” – Wittgenstein

This is a topic that I have been thinking a lot about for the past couple of weeks – in fact, I’ve even wrote a couple of posts touching on this idea.  In general, language shapes our thinking and our perception of the world – if there is something that is unexpressible in language, we then try our hardest to find a way to express it in language, and more often than not, we will usually take the way that we have found to express it and consider the actual thing to be expressed to be constrained by the language we have chosen.

This applies to many things.  It applies to 神, or God – two concepts which are translated from Japanese to English as the same word, but are, in reality, concepts that are very much different if taken in the historical context of the two different languages.  This also applies even among the same languages – two different linguistic dialects have appeared in America, for example, where simple, foundational words such as “racism”, “sexism”, and even “theory” have come to mean different things based upon who is saying them (if you feel the need to argue this, you will not understand this post, and you should make an effort to.)

My language shapes my worldview, and my worldview shapes my language.

What I find most fascinating about studying Japanese is actually not the language.  The language is interesting and challenging, to be sure, and I mine a lot of interesting and useful things out of the most basic of studies (why, for example, does 桜 mean both “cherry tree” and “horse meat”?) but I view learning Japanese more as expanding my worldview – they have a completely different set of cultural assumptions that are coded into their language, and to learn those is to put mine in more stark relief.  What is encoded in my language that is so obvious to me that I take it for granted?

Politeness, for example, is a fascinating topic, because both Japanese and English have politeness encoded into our language, but it takes a different form.  Basic Japanese politeness appears very direct to English speakers.  I was in a sushi place yesterday, and I was contemplating about how I would ask for some water in each language.  In Japanese, I could simply say “水ください” and that (“Water, please”) would be seen as polite.  But in English, that could actually be a little abrupt.  In English, we would have to add something to it “I would like some water, please”, or “Could you please give me some water”.  And I came to realize that in English, politeness is all about giving someone the feeling – whether it actually is the case or not – that you are giving them a choice in the matter.  In Japanese, that is not so important.  In Japanese, it seems to be more important that you show that you recognize that you are asking someone to sacrifice something, such as time or effort.

So this simple observation goes back to what is probably one of the foundational differences between English and Japanese cultures – the difference between the individualistic culture of the west, and the collectivist culture of the east.  In Japan, it is not your choice that is shown respect, but, instead, your status as a part of society.

This also is shown in the simple greeting “Nice to meet you”.  In English, that simply does mean “nice to meet you” – but in Japanese it’s よろしくお願いします, which does not really mean that, but “please take care of me in the future” or some such.  In the Japanese, the cultural assumption is “I may need something from you and I request politely that you take care of me.”

Again, these language differences are completely transparent to those who are saying them.

I have noticed that those who translate from Japanese to English also tend to try to translate the cultural assumptions as best as they can, and in my view, this loses a lot.  For example, in the song “What is Love” by Morning Musume, there is this phrase:


One site translates it as:

Who will the goddess of victory
smile for?
Is the goddess of victory
fair to everyone?

And another as:

Who will win happiness
In the end?
Does happiness come
Equally to us all?

So which is correct?

The first is probably more correct.  Note the character for “kami” in the actual Japanese – but those in the west would see that as a little strange, so the second translator decided to also attempt a cultural translation, but lost something in the process.  Specifically, it lost a certain spiritual connotation that perhaps the second translator didn’t think that the western reader would understand or appreciate.

But how can we understand their culture if it’s hidden from us in the guise of our own?

No, I don’t think there’s a goddess of victory.  But perhaps some Japanese do.  This speaks to the superstitions or beliefs in Japanese culture that we don’t share – and it also speaks to superstitions or beliefs in ours that they don’t share.  It speaks, I think, to biases of the translator, to a degree.  It speaks to two stark choices in deciding how to bridge cultures:  do you just directly translate the language or do you also try to translate the culture?  And it speaks to the most important question of all:  how do we speak to each other with respect when we don’t even understand how our own language constrains our thinking?

And actually, it speaks to even something more fundamental:  勝利 does not mean happiness.  It means victory.  Why did the second translator think that those two words were interchangeable in this context?  Or is there an assumption in the Japanese culture that victory translates to happiness?

The constraints of my language are not clear to me.  The fact that they exist is becoming far more clear to me.  I wonder if Japanese people have the same experience when learning English.

Parallels Between Language and Computer Science

Makoto Ogawa is a former Morning Musume idol, who took a couple of years off of performing to go to New Zealand to learn English.  She recounted her experience in words similar to this (and I’m paraphrasing because I don’t remember them entirely):

I went to New Zealand to learn English, but in doing so, I found that I didn’t understand Japanese.  So I had to learn Japanese first.

As I’ve been thinking about how best for me to learn Japanese, I’ve been thinking deeply about the underpinnings of language, and I’m reminded of computer languages.  I know probably ten languages, and I’m proficient in probably five or six (though I’ve been out of practice in a few).  I guess this makes me a CompSci polyglot.  But I started thinking about the differences between computer languages.

Take these two examples:

#include <stdio.h>

void main(int argc, char *argv[]) {
 int i = 0;
 int result = 0;
 for (i = 0; i < 5; i++) {
   result += i;
 printf("%s", result);


result = 0
for i in range(0..4):
  result = result + i

The first example is in C, the second example is in python.  Please excuse any syntax errors, I did not compile or run them.

In case you don’t understand programming, let me explain:  both of these examples will do exactly the same thing. (Possible syntax or logic errors notwithstanding).  Both will take all the numbers from zero to four, add them up, and print the result.  So if you look closely, you can see common syntax and structures.

But they are not the same.  Each language engenders specific design choices of the people who designed the language.  In the second example, for example, the indents are absolutely important.  If you do not put the indents in the code, it will not work.  In the first example, the indents are optional.  The important structures to serve the same function are the curly braces.  They both serve the same purpose, but the python developers wanted to enforce what they saw as good coding style, while the C developers wanted to… well, I’m not sure what they wanted to do.  I suspect they just had to come up with something and did.  There’s probably a historical reason for it.

But that makes my point for me:  the C developers were pragmatic, while the python developers enforced a particular cultural aspect through the use of language syntax.

What does this have to do with Japanese?  Or any other language, you may ask?

Well, think about the difference and similarities between Japanese and English.  We focus on the differences (and we’re right to), but there are many similarities as well.  They share specific parts of speech, even though the way one marks those parts of speech is different.  They share specific concepts, even though the words are different (“look” vs. 見, for example).  But they both share common human experience.  There is, generally, a one to one correspondence between concepts, just as there is generally a one to one correspondence between concepts in computer languages, with the only differences between the languages being esoteric, with a few fundamental cultural differences tossed in.

So what was Makoto Ogawa saying?

The trick to understanding a different language is to understand yours.  The reason being that once you know how yours works, the rest is, literally, just semantics.