The Language Barrier
I was recently discussing with a friend the sometimes insane complications of very formal spoken Japanese.
It’s a particular difficulty for a low-level learner because it’s encountered every day, whereas the same level of formality is rarely encountered in spoken English.
We imagined a Japanese exchange student popping down to the shops for a Mars bar and a packet of cigarettes.
Taro: (to his neighbour) Good morning!
(some minutes later)
Taro: (to newsagent) Hello! Mars, and [indistinguishable, newsagent doesn’t understand], please.
Newsagent: Sorry? Lucky Strike?
Newsagent: Four ninety-five altogether.
(Taro hands over a tenner)
Newsagent: Five pounds five change. Do you want a bag for that?
Newsagent: [holding up a bag] A bag?
Taro: Ah, no. I have a bag. Thank you. Goodbye.
All pretty simple. Taro’s got what he wants and nobody’s blood pressure got dangerously high. So here’s the same seemingly simple exchange, but with exchange student Ted in Japan, with the formality fully ramped-up.
Ted: (to neighbour) Good morning!
Neighbour: Ah, good morning, neighbour! Where are you going?
Ted: (somewhat taken aback) Er… to the 7-11.
Neighbour: Ah, well, safe journey there and back.
(at the 7-11)
Cashier: (shouting) Welcome!
Ted: (pointing at cigarettes) KitKat and [indistinguishable, cashier doesn’t understand], please.
Cashier: Oh, how awkward, I didn’t understand Esteemed Customer! What shall I do? What shall I do? (starts to wave hands in front of reddening face)
Ted: (doesn’t understand the commotion, so takes box of Lucky Strikes and puts on counter)
Cashier: Ah, ah, I’m terribly sorry. Thank you. Those two items together come to 450 yen.
Ted: (puts 5000 yen note on counter)
Cashier: Is it alright to take it from this 5000 yen?
Ted: Er, yes.
Cashier: Thank you very much. That’s 4550 yen change. I wonder if Esteemed Customer is in possession of a bag?
Ted: Sorry, what?
Cashier: (reddening again) Oh, what shall I do? I can’t adequately make myself understood! This is awful. Does anyone speak English? What shall I do?
Ted: I already have a bag, if that’s what you mean?
Cashier: Oh thank you. I’m terribly sorry. (packs bag) Terribly sorry.
And there you see that a cashier nearly died of heart failure because of an inability to use any simpler form of Japanese.
People not just in Japan but the world over are unable to simplify what they are saying to language learners. For example I once heard a (very) elementary student of English being asked “So what do you make of it so far? Getting your head round it?” which was of course met with a blank stare.
But Japanese social rules actually serve to make life more difficult for the learner, who, in cases of total non-comprehension, will just be bombarded with more and more complicated and incomprehensible formality.
It’s unfortunate for us learners of the language that in order to learn everyday Japanese, you need to speak it perfectly already. (Knowing how to read kanji before you’ve ever studied them is also very handy.) Japanese actually has to be learned backwards. And that, my friends, is why it takes so long.