GALE Newsletter: Spring 2007
Producing Myself in English: A Personal Essay
by Ayano Fukui
Graduate School of Creativity and Culture
Aichi Shukutoku University
Quite often, on Japanese television or in magazines and newspapers, there are advertisements for language schools that tell audience that being multilingual is special, enchanting and cool. When I was a junior high school, one of the television advertisements had the catch line, Eigo wa Chikyuu-go [English is the language of planet earth]. I have been interested in the advertising strategies of language schools in a wry way. Miho Matsunaga, a translator of German literature, cynically points out centralism of the English language: “The possibility for literature works in English language to become bestsellers is higher than for works in German and also the works in English have many opportunities to be adapted for film” (“Tamago wo Dakinagara. Moshiku wa, Kuse ni naru Honyaku” 156). So, Every time I see these advertisements, I wonder, “Is it so enchanting for someone to have linguistic skill, especially in English, as one of the most central languages in this world?” In this essay, I will explore myself as English language learner.
Linguistic Skill as Mental Strength
In his essay “Busu ga Moteru Hou wo Kanojo ni Oshiete Agenasai” [Survival Tips for Ugly Girls], the Japanese novelist and essayist Shuusaku Endou writes, “If you girls do not have confidence in your looks I suggest you study English hard” (27). I am not really sure why he picks up on language skill as one way for ugly-looking girls to survive, but the appeal of the combination, “girl and English” might be inspired by the life of Umeko Tsuda (1864-1929), the founder of Tsudajuku University, who is known as a pioneer in Japanese women’s education.
Tsuda went to the USA at the age of 6 as one of the exchange students in the government delegation mission in 1871, stayed in Washington for 11 years and then returned to Japan at the age of 18, with excellent English. At the age of 26, she went to USA again and majored in biology at Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia. Three years later, she came back to Japan and later she established a university for women. In her letters to her host family written before the arrival at Yokohama in 1882, she wrote, “Tomorrow I will turn to a new page in my life: may it be wonderful!”(Ohba 8). Tsuda gained excellent skills in English, and she was ambitious, but she also had to face the reality that in Japanese society, women were not considered important and she struggled. Her linguistic skill in English must have been the source of her fearless strength that helped her find her own way. Linguistic skill is not the monopoly of one gender; it is a fair strength for women and men both – there isn’t a rule that says, “Girls should not learn languages” or “Boys should not learn languages.”
Trying to Prove That I am not Invisible
I started learning English in junior high school days, at the age of 13, and at first I was not good at spelling, reading, or speaking in English. Every day I memorized simple sentences like, “I like to play tennis.” All I did in those days was memorizing and exams. In the second year of junior high school, I encountered a unique teacher, she told students to create the sentences and say what they wanted to say in English. Her teaching method inspired me, and she encouraged me. She recognized me, and I found I was visible and then I kept on trying. It was a challenge to produce myself in a new language.
I am not really sure if I felt something was wrong with the Japanese language. In fact, I was “good” at reading Japanese novels. It might simply have been because I longed to be the “best” at something at school since, for most school teachers, I was invisible. For my teenager self, the key to proving my visibility was English. I had read Senbatsu Test [The Entrance Exam], Takashi Atouda’s fictional story about an invalid and shy girl who seemed exactly like me:
“I am shy and quiet. [...] I don’t have guts. It is true that I am not a smart student. I look stupider than I actually am. However, I like learning English. Out of all the tests on school subjects, I did best on the English language exams. How wonderful it would be if I had English skill and could lead a smart life” – she had such a virtual dream in her heart. (72-73)
I was that type of girl. Although it was not serious, I had a congenital illness concerned with the cervical vertebrae. In elementary school, some teachers regarded me and my illness as a bit of an annoyance. I longed to have a fearless passion to feel happy about being myself, let the illness disappear from my mind and I longed to look smart. At high school, I found my interest in reading and writing in Japanese and English---probably my shy self had a passion to express and produce myself in writing. At university, although friends said “It sounds difficult to pass the English writing class,” I took many writing classes. Gradually, I came to realize that in Japanese writing, I might not insist on “my own” opinion, but in English, I was encouraged to do exactly that. Perhaps this is what translator Minami Aoyama is getting at in the essay, “Oh My God!”:
Most people in Japan do not emphasize “I”---unless they are people in sports or the military. The word “I” is unfamiliar in the Japanese language system, because Japanese is not an “I”- emphasizing language. However, in English, as you know, the word “I” is frequently used, and “I” is essential in speaking. In a sense, when we use the word “I” we realize individuality. (92-93)
What inspired me most in learning English was the individual personality represented by the power of “I” in English. I am not saying that I did not have my own personality before learning English, or that Japanese forced me to become shy because of its restraints and atmosphere, as Aoyama suggests. For me, as a tool to express myself, English helped me prove that I was not invisible.
Perhaps this answer is not quite enough for a gender essay. I might need to change my opinion, and say, “Yes, English released me from my weakness and femininity based on the Japanese language.” I try to make this shift, though, I realize my strength is simply based on my ambition to live like medically-normal people. Does gender figure in my ambition to be part of healthy humanity? With regards to gender in my first language, personally, I have never thought Japanese language disrupts my strength, my writing in Japanese is never feminine, teachers said that I have a passionate voice and I feel my Japanese voice doesn’t differ in English, although people say “In my second language, I feel my personality more.”
When it comes to students and linguistic skill, most people think of ryuugakusei [students who study abroad]. For me, they have a special status since they have “genuine” pronunciation skill. As my high school teachers used to say, “You students won’t be able to gain ‘genuine’ English pronunciation until you live in the country where English is a public language.”
Personally, I have always been reluctant to care about whether my pronunciation is genuine or not, but this urge to be identified – or mistaken for—a native English speaker is connected to success and the social hierarchy. Yoko Tawada, the well-known bilingual writer (Japanese and Germany) wryly observes, “Learning languages and studying abroad might mean rags to riches symbolically: you compete with people and gain higher social status” (Tawada 10).
Although I may have dreamed of going somewhere to refine my English pronunciation and experience the shift from “rags to riches,” I have never actually tried to do this. Yet I actually envy those people, though I know that I need not wonder whether I have “fake” pronunciation, or feel that my days as a strictly local English language learner are a waste of time.
I’m encouraged by the sweet opinion expressed by zopp, a famous Japanese popular music lyricist with bilingual language skills in Japanese and English:「海外にいけば[英語が]話せるようになるっていうのは僕はないと思います。駅前留学でだって英語は十分上達すると思います。ようは、やる気の問題ですからね!」[I do not think that you gain linguistic skill only when you are overseas. You can learn English anywhere; say, you can brush up your English language skill at a language school in Japan. The key point is your motivation.] (「場所じゃなく気持ち」http://yaplog.jp/zopp/archive/445 Blog Entry.).
Yoshifumi Saitou, a linguistic professor at Tokyo University recalls a student in his class who was skeptical about bilingualism and remarked, “Actually bilingual speakers in the world will have to struggle with cultural identity someday in their life” (134). There might be some issues about “cultural identity” if I were one of the students who studied abroad. A short research into bilingual/multilingual students says:
Students who studied abroad must have experienced cultural shock at least twice, first when they need to get used to the school and lifestyle abroad and then after returning to the home country, they need to get used to the home country's lifestyle. (Sato 100)
As in Umeko Tsuda’s case, a problem occurs when they go abroad and when they return to home country. Sometimes I have heard some students insisting at school, “When I was abroad, everything was fabulous, however, here in my home country, I don’t feel everything is okay with me,” or “I experienced a lot abroad, I am such a multilingual and multicultural person. I can objectively see my home country now and you guys can’t, can you?” Whenever I listen to these students, my wry self wonders, “What’s their objective stance? And what is their opinion that people don’t understand students who experienced in abroad?”
I feel that these students are forcing themselves to choose a country as the basis of their mindset. They are forcing themselves to choose between the country where they were born and the country where they studied? It sounds difficult to keep two national identities. There is a proverb “Home is where the heart is”---where is their home? Is it difficult to tell where their heart is? ---Or, their home is everywhere, it doesn’t have to be one?
Yoko Tawada rather prefers to locate herself “in-between” (31) languages, and she says she tries to keep on “cultivating both Japanese and German, consciously and passionately everyday, and these bilingual languages have an effect on each other and I feel I gain an ability to express things elaborately; these are what I did not have in my monolingual days” (44). The goal of my own writing stance in Japanese and English as to stay “in-between,” as well. I used to be eager for “genuine” English writing skill and style. However, my writing teacher said I already have my own style. I much prefer my own style in writing, and as I have longed to the whole time, I will try to keep on producing myself fearlessly in Japanese and English---with a bit of support from what I’ve learned from gender studies.
阿刀田高 短編「選抜テスト」新潮文庫『花あらし』に収録、2003年 (初出は2001年)。
zopp.「場所じゃなく気持ち」ブログ『音楽業界綱渡り 作詞家zoppと代表取締まられ役Sの二人三脚綱渡り』より。http://yaplog.jp/zopp/archive/445 Blog Entry on September 11, 2006.
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