Language exists inside of our skulls and escapes through the tongue: What Nabokov called “A fat sleek seal flopping so happily among the familiar rocks.” It’s a chunk of flesh that helps us push ideas out from our squishy insides and appease that primal urge to exude ourselves.
We are understood primarily by the sounds we make with our mouths. And so, standing in front of a classroom of bleary-eyed Japanese high school kids reading numbers for 50 minutes is bewildering on a fundamental, almost religiously loaded level. It’s like staring at a mirror and repeating your name.
In the classroom, language – my language, my “native tongue” – isn’t a vessel loaded by my complicated, deep thoughts and secret understanding of German poets. My ship is packed by a book telling me that today is phone number day and that I will instruct the students on how phone numbers sound in America, a topic I never noticed or cared about:
The first three digits are read as single numbers, as are the following three: four-oh-three, two-seven-one. The last four are doubled up as pairs: “Forty-one-seventeen.”
Do this stuff enough and you change. You hear dropped particles so often you make plans with “what time we do it?” You wonder whether an appointment really is a promise.
In the real world, words cut up the environment. They change things, accomplish goals, order a cup of coffee. Words plant themselves in other people’s ears and for a minute, you grow a little forest of meaning that you can both live in or argue about. (In Japanese, the word for I – 私 – translates literally as “my part of our shared space.”)
But sometimes, teaching English in Japan feels like planting seeds in concrete.
“Hi how are you going?”
Consider the tragedy of carrying on a conversation only to realize that it is, literally, a memorized script. Students memorize long passages from the textbook and recite them to me in stumbling but clear English with no idea about what the words mean. And daily life has all sorts of moments where the proper words get stripped of any connection to real meanings:
Student: “Thank you for asking!” (bright smile and a wave).
Of course, some students communicate something of their inner lives in English. I’m not asking for poems about the triumph of human spirit. I’m happy when they can tell me about their favorite bands or ask me what movies I’ve seen. They talk about food because we can all understand what food is. They say they like onigiri, too, and we’ve connected.
That’s all you really need to remember that words can connect the content trapped inside of two skulls.
Erasing the board
And even teaching, it’s not so bad. I’ve been liberated by the realization that I am in the classroom but that I am not in the classroom. I’m an empty vessel: A signal without content, a radio tower broadcasting static, a guy making noises that students repeat with the intention of repeating them later to other English speakers to make a transaction.
Sometimes I move to the back of the room and look at what I wrote on the board as if I can’t understand it. With fluency, it’s almost impossible to forget that “four” means “four.” But teaching EFL with empathy means stopping yourself from knowing. And if you practice it, you can do it: Suddenly, you are outside of the black board, outside of your inner monologue, outside of everything, thinking about it as nothing more than sounds and pencil marks. And then you disappear for a second.
“Securely, for the chance!”
I realize, in those moments, the reason for all those inexplicable Japanese T-shirts, those billboards that don’t make any sense. It’s because the English language – obviously – lacks specific referral power in Japan. It’s a series of scripts and vocabulary words that are never really used to produce meaning.
Japanese, in Japan, is the language of poetry and novels, dense and rich and alive. English – and, because I speak it, me – we’re thrown out there for entertainment and foreign allure but never expected to mean anything real. *
As a teacher of a language, it’s tempting to think that you are that real thing – that the students, finally, will be able to speak to you. But it’s not that – it’s America, and entrance exams, and TV shows and Justin Bieber. You, you’re just the ship that gets them there.
*= This article appeared the day after this blog post was published, dealing with Katakanized English (and its removal from any real meaning) as the sign of Japan’s “empty-headed over-reliance” on America’s economy.
**= Today I felt a minor sadness about the death of a great pun. Puns are never worth explaining, but for posterity, here it is: I had designed a number of worksheets for the week, but had changed minor parts to accommodate different ability levels. Before a class, I needed one of the papers, but only had the papers for the lower ability levels.
“Is this what you need?” the teacher asked, holding up a lower-level class’s worksheet.
“No – Same sheet, different day.”
No one got the joke, and it wasn’t worth explaining.