Sunday, July 31, 2011

Japan 2011 Summer Fellows - Nuance in Language

The institution where I’m currently studying is the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies, situated in the heart of the city of Yokohama. The center has both a ten month course and a shorter summer course. The summer course is fairly intensive, consisting of five hours of class and between two and three hours of homework every day. Much of the work consists of reading essays written by Japanese professors, watching the news, and participating in student-led discussions.

Watching political news and reading academic essays has impressed upon me the drastic differences between casual Japanese spoken with friends and professional Japanese used in the conduct of government and academic debate. The difference certainly exists in English as well. I tend to address my male friends as “dude” or “man”, and I clearly do not address my professors as such. Japanese, however, nearly makes an art out of this.

For example, there are several different words, with varying levels of politeness, that are used to mean “but”. I typically use the word kedo, which is perhaps the most widely used in daily conversation. One of my teachers, however, insists that we stop using kedo and instead replace it with the more formal keredomo (or one of a couple other options). Other aspects of my Japanese have undergone a similar transformation, including everything from the pronouns I use to how I conjugate verbs. My speaking and writing has become significantly more formal, and I’ve become much more accustomed to reading academic papers and political speech. This becomes a problem, however, when I meet my friends on the weekend and I can’t quite fully transition back to casual Japanese. As a result, my friends now tease me for sounding like a professor when we’re out having a drink. My teacher described it well, saying I needed to develop a “polite channel” and a “casual channel” in my mind that I can switch between. Something tells me I have a quite a way to go before I reach that point.

Part of the reason my Japanese is changing so much is how I learned it in the first place. I spent three years teaching at a Japanese high school, during which I picked up much of my Japanese ability organically. Moreover, I spent quite a bit of time around other teachers and speaking to students as a teacher, so I inadvertently sound a bit authoritative at times. Changing from a teacher back to a student has necessitated a similar change in my Japanese.

The manner in which even words as simple as pronouns and conjunctions can reflect social standing and perception is, to me, one the most fascinating aspects of the Japanese language. The nuance is nearly impossible to pick up unless one spends time in the country, hearing how people actually use the language in various situations. Even then, the language varies so much from person to person that it’s sometimes difficult to discern proper Japanese from regional dialects. It is, at times, quite frustrating as a foreign student trying to learn the language. Still, Japanese wouldn’t hold my interest as it does if it was similar to English. After all, variety is the spice of life.

Connor Cislo
MA International Affairs 2012
Sigur Center 2011 Asian Language Fellow
Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies, Japan

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