I recently helped some Taiwanese students come to town.
The weeks leading up to their arrival were confusing. We had drawn up plans for their arrival and e-mailed them, and a few weeks later we still had no reply.
“I heard it is because the Chinese are very lazy,” I was told.
When they finally arrived, it felt like they were starting a revolution. There were about 13 of them, dyed hair – not the classy burgundy-brown dye of Japanese women, but the green streaks and bleach-blonde bangs of high school punk bands. There were uniforms, but the skirts were over the girls’ knees. All of the girls and some of the boys were wearing makeup.
At my school, uniforms are inspected once a month for tears or fading. Skirts are measured with rulers for proper width. A handout was distributed showing the angle at which pony tails could be worn; it was illustrated with arrows.
The Taiwanese students gave a short speech in Japanese. The speech was about Taiwan’s support for Japan after the Tohoku Earthquake. They sang a song and held up flags.
Then the Taiwanese kids held up a sign they’d handwritten in Japanese. The sign should have said “Nippon Ganbatte!” (“Japan, keep at it!”) but they spelled it wrong. The sign read, “Nippon Ganbateu!”
The Japanese audience didn’t know how to handle that. Nervous laughter rippled through the audience and then erupted into hearty chuckles.
Someone had made a mistake in public.
Do you know where is?
I was privy to setting up a meet-and-greet session with some high school kids, where Japanese students presented a power point presentation to the Taiwanese guests. They did it in English, since it was the common language.
The presentation was solid for Japanese students, who had spent at least a month writing and practicing pronunciation and gestures. They performed admirably.
The Taiwanese presentation was made by a single student who looked like a JPop idol. The girls were swooning over him, the boys were intimidated. Then he started speaking in English. Natural, Asian-influenced English.
“Hello everyone how are you? Let’s start enjoying my presentation, OK? Let’s look. Now, who can see my map of Taiwan. Can you see my school? Do you know where is the school?”
The Japanese audience was dumbfounded. When he asked questions, they were too shy to speak up, too terrified that their English couldn’t compare to his.
The Taiwanese kid was speaking a glorious, almost-exact replica of English grammar, but still speaking in a way that would humiliate many Japanese students.
Practice Makes Perfect
If you’re asked a question in Japan, you’d better have the right answer. Most students live by the credo, “If at first you don’t succeed, abandon all hope of ever succeeding.”
Practice makes perfect, so everyone practices, forever. It’s a lovely and fascinating aspect of the traditional culture when it comes to archery or flower arrangements, but detrimental when applied to speaking English.
It comes from a long line of Japanese instruction – you can’t, for example, forget the stroke order when writing in Japanese. Students giggle when I write my hiragana from top to bottom instead of left to right. They’re embarrassed for me, but I’ve still successfully communicated with them. That point gets lost.
“Nippon Ganbateu!” was a spelling error, sure. But it still communicated a message, a message of particular irony in the situation – the encouragement to carry on after a disaster.
The trouble with learning English in Japan is the terror behind making mistakes. I got everything the Taiwan kid was saying, despite errors like “Do you know where is the school?” Japanese students are so afraid of saying something wrong that they often don’t say anything at all.
The perfect becomes the enemy of the pretty good.
Students in Japan learn rules about English that compound this problem. The English used in college entrance exams is ridiculously formal, English you wouldn’t speak to the president, but maybe you’d use it with Jesus.
Or, they’re ridiculously specific about word use, less like an English test than a Bar exam. Consider:
“I may as well throw my money to the ground, as to give it to you.”
This is the proper expression sought after by a practice English exam for a university. The incorrect answers include:
“I’d rather throw my money away than give it to you.”
Can you explain why? Take a minute, it’s 15 seconds longer than a 17-year-old Japanese kid has.
Ready? It’s because rather implies a preference for where the money should go – as if, given the choice, you’d actually prefer to put your money in a garbage can than to trust your grubby friend with it. It ignores real English and replaces it with a bunch of two- and three-letter words that are notoriously hard to keep arranged properly.
Part of this is because, of course, Japanese people don’t have access to English enough to gain an intuitive sense of what they should be saying. They’re forced to understand the language through the use of rules and formulas, and are taught phrases that illustrate those formulas. It’s like an algebra lesson.
Born to Fail
One of the nicer things about being an American is my culture’s love of failure. Americans don’t just tolerate failure, we think it gives people character. We want our heroes to crawl out of the mud. It cultivates the soul.
But Japan doesn’t embrace failure. The system is rigged against it – if you fail at a task once, it shows that you weren’t able to prepare, you didn’t put in the time or energy to get it done when it counted. Failing is reserved for the lazy.
This is the flip side of the country’s more inspirational philosophy that anyone can do anything, so long as they have the mental focus to persevere through a lifetime of practice and preparation.
It’s inspiring, which is a shame, because there aren’t a lot of people I can talk to about it.
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