Wow, can you believe how rude he was?

Nuance is hard. It’s sometimes challenging to use the correct register in one’s own, native language, never mind in a foreign language! And then there are all those fuzzy words we use to hesitate and seem more humble–“I was wondering”, “I guess,” “It seems like”, etc. They’re actually pretty difficult to use correctly for someone still working on acquiring the language.

Today in Dr. Izumi’s Second Language Acquisition class, we talked about something that I think any second-language learner can relate to, but perhaps the general public isn’t sufficiently conscious of. Many of the traits we ascribe to people’s personalities are actually features of nonnative speech. We have a tendency to ascribe people’s words to some aspect of their personality, their upbringing, their education, or, if we’re not careful, to their ethnic or racial group. How many times have you heard, “Chinese people are really direct”, or “Japanese people are so shy about giving their opinions”?

Consider the specific example of asking for a favor. There are really all kinds of ways to go about that, and your audience is likely to react very differently based on your approach. “Give me five dollars, please” is linguistically very simple, but probably won’t make your friends very happy. “Can you give me five dollars, please?” is a little more complex, and a little more polite. If you want to be most successfully in getting cash out of your buddy, you’ll probably go with something like, “Hey man, I know I just bummed a cup of coffee off of you this morning, but, if you don’t mind, could you maybe loan me five bucks or so? I swear I’ll hit you back tomorrow.” How many ESL students do you know who can come up with that off the top of their heads?

In my own experience, I simply am not as fluent speaking polite Japanese as I am with casual forms. Probably 90% of my practice speaking Japanese is with close friends or girlfriends, so talking to strangers is just a taxing experience overall. Sometimes I drop a です here and there, or fail to catch the 敬語 form that a shop clerk is using with me. I promise, I really am trying to be polite!

Let’s all try to give a little more leeway to our friends who are talking to us across a language barrier. Sure, it may not always strike you just the right way, but the odds are that they really do want to express themselves with warmth, caring, and intelligence. It’s just that, sometimes, it comes out a little wonky.

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English teacher, student of Japanese, and aspiring linguist.

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