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Language Is Acting

This entry is part 6 of 12 in the series Secrets of Speaking

At university, I was in a comedy troupe. No, the comedy troupe. The best comedy troupe at my school. The greatest comedy troupe since the previous greatest comedy troupe. And I was in it. And I loved it.

By the time I’d gotten into the troupe, my Japanese project was also underway — I listened exclusively to Japanese music, ate Japanese food, et cetera. Anyway, one day, during one of our bi-weekly “rehearsals”/shouting matches, I was sitting at a desk enjoying my dinner, when one of my buddies in the troupe goes: “there’s Khatzumoto with his chopsticks; he thinks he’s Japanese”, or something to that effect.

And then it hit me.

So after only one semester, I left the best comedy troupe on campus, explaining that it was in order to prepare for grad school, which was true at the time — I had wanted to go to grad school in Japan.

Language is acting. All language is acting. When you’re a kid, you copy your parents and schoolmates. Do you think it’s an accident that you speak like them? Do you think it’s a coincidence that you use the same phrases? What are the odds that, of all the accents in all the languages in the world, you would have yours? And what makes it yours? What gives you the right to it? Why is it “normal” for you to eat with a knife and fork and not your hands or chopsticks?

You’re a fraud. You’re nothing but a degraded copy of your earliest and/or strongest linguistic influences. There’s nothing “normal” about the way you speak. There’s nothing “normal” about the writing system you use. The only reason you don’t realize that this is all an act, is because you’ve been acting at it for so long; you’ve forgotten that it was just an imitation, an impression.

Kind of like the stereotypical undercover cop movie; you know “I no longer knew whether I was a cop pretending to be a thug, or a thug pretending to be a cop”. But unlike the police officer, you have barely any memory of your previous identity and the little linguistic ruse you pulled. But think. Think hard. Think for a moment, and you’ll remember. If only faintly, you ‘ll remember at some point or other, consciously copying a phrase you heard an adult use, consciously pronouncing things like the people around you.

You who had no language now have at least one language, your “native” language. What makes it so much yours? Let me tell you something, there’s nothing “native” about it. If we are to take the word “native” back to its roots [from Latin nātīvus, from nātus, past participle of nāscī, to be born], then, in a way, there is no such thing as a “native” language; if there were, you’d have been born knowing it. But you weren’t. You stole it as you went along. You copycat ;).

All that make a language “native” to you are your beliefs about it. Your almost unshakable belief in your right to it; your unquestioned conviction that it belongs to you, and that you have both the competency and the right to use it. Your years-long habit of using it, day in, day out. If nothing else, it may be the only language you own right now. And that’s another factor: the “what else do I have?” factor. That “native” language may well be all the language you know right now. So for you to speak, read and write in it is no luxury; it’s a necessity for life; you almost have no choice. That’s a pretty realistic belief.

Use that belief. Paint yourself into the same corner with Japanese. Make it a sink or swim situation. Cut off all the other exits. Don’t visit non-Japanese-language web sites, don’t watch non-Japanese programs; don’t read non-Japanese documents. Japanese is the only language for you; you have no choice BUT to understand, read, write and otherwise use it. You can’t slink away by the English side door. There is no English side door. You don’t know any other languages. だからこの言語しか無い. This is it. This is your only language.

Believe that, and I think it will make your Japanese better. It will give you that insatiable drive to understand and to be understood, and prevent you from falling back into a different language, even if and when someone makes fun of you, you won’t quit because you can’t quit; because for you, to quit Japanese is to quit the enterprise of language altogether, and we all know that wouldn’t work out too well.

Believe in your right to use this language and in your (growing) competency in it. Really, it’s no more a Japanese-born person’s than it is yours (and your language is no more yours than a Japanese person’s). Or, more accurately, all that makes it more a Japanese person’s than yours is:

  1. our hypothetical Japanese person’s belief in their ownership,
  2. the fact that he may not know any other languages well,
  3. the fact that he has lots of experience in Japanese to back up his belief, and maybe
  4. his incompetency in other languages’ making Japanese the only method for him to communicate with other people.

When you think about it, anyone can make that connection to any language! All you need to do is:

  1. believe in your ownership of Japanese,
  2. pretend to not know any other languages, and
  3. practice; that’s all.
  4. Skip # 4.

All you have to do is take it and hold on to it, and it will be yours, too. Genetics? Passports? Please.

Series Navigation<< How to Pronounce JapaneseLuxurious Worries, Or: So Effing What If You Sound Like An Anime?! >>

  29 comments for “Language Is Acting

  1. April 24, 2007 at 10:09

    Do you hang around There was a discussion about this the other day. I feel the same way as you about “native level”. You can read the thread HERE.

    (PS – My forum handle is “Ezrach” there.)

  2. khatzumoto
    April 24, 2007 at 14:10

    Hey Alex,

    That sounds like you had to hold your position in a pretty brutal argument. I liked your point about how inability to understand an Australian accent doesn’t make you any less a native speaker of English.

    Arguments like that and stupid comments about how it’s “impossible” are the biggest reason why I quit visiting fora like that; it’s just too painful to hear that; when you’re climbing the mountain, you don’t want to be hearing that it can’t be done.

    You’re a strong guy, Alex. Keep on keeping on.

  3. khatzumoto
    April 24, 2007 at 14:24

    It makes you wonder though, Alex. If those people are so convinced about the impossibility of their task, why do they even bother? Why are they even on a site called The Japanese Page, if they’re so absolutely convinced that Japanese can’t be learned beyond semi-literacy? Or are they just being trolls for the fun of it? 超ムカつく~。

  4. Saru Sponge
    April 24, 2007 at 20:12

    I have noticed a steady negative attitude from intellectuals towards those less educated than they are or those who are lower on the path to some intellectual goal. It is a form of elitism. It happens in academia, it happens in the workplace, it happens on silly Internet fora. I’m pretty sure the sociological explanation is that people are jerks.

  5. khatzumoto
    April 24, 2007 at 20:28


  6. Saru Sponge
    April 24, 2007 at 21:02

    A huge issue regarding the learning of any language is potential discouragement. There is this inexplicable undercurrent in language learning circles (Japanese groups in particular) that learning a language is a long, arduous drawn-out process. I mean, it is because you’re always picking up new things, but the same can certainly be said of your native language as well.

    A lot of it is a lack of confidence in one’s skills. The – perhaps subconscious – urge to hold back (on an emotional level) these beginners. Maybe there is some satisfaction in that. I don’t know. I honestly wish more people had your confidence, khatzumoto. It is a liberating, and – dare I say – inspiring attitude.

  7. khatzumoto
    April 24, 2007 at 21:44


    Thanks for your kind comments…You mention how Japanese language groups are especially toxic in terms of emotional atmosphere. You know, it strikes me that, between Japan’s immense cultural productivity (music, movies, literature), and the communication technology with have today, especially in the form of the Internet., the distance between Japan and the rest of the world, in many ways, really is just a click. In other words, it’s the same as the distance to anywhere else (sorry to sound like a Discovery Channel documentary OH WAIT they don’t make those any more, only furniture shows). But I digress. strikes me that we may well be living in the twilight of “Orientalism”, or whatever the collective name for all the stupid myths surrounding Japan and simlarly “Eastern” places is. One day, Japanese will just be considered normal to the point of vanillaness. And then the real “exotic” languages will be the ones where for whatever reason, the people have had a combination of low population and low cultural output in the form of recordable/transferable/reproducible media, and those will be the new “man, you’ll NEVER understand that” languages.

    But then you mention that this attitude exists in language learning circles in general, so…I don’t know. I just hope that’s how things are one day.

    And I still don’t get it…Excuse me for taking this to the lowest, most racist denominator, but how can you hold the twin ideas of “we are better than those people because our people invented the motor car and the atom bomb, beyach”, and “we are too stupid to learn those people’s language”? Doesn’t that equation break somewhere?…Am I making sense?

  8. Joe
    April 25, 2007 at 05:16

    In the world of Japanese learning, there are those who talk about it and those who do it.

    Those who talk about it end up spending so much time seeking out “free internet resources” and trying to tie them together, talking about learning Japanese with other learners, that they don’t actually DO the learning.

    And that’s easy to do. Learning Japanese takes effort. Let’s face it: it’s much easier to spend your time chatting in English with other wannabe-learners than it is to buckle down and start learning sentences and kanji and vocabulary. After a while it becomes impossible to learn Japanese, because they’re not actually learning Japanese: they’re just talking about it.

    It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you’re learning Japanese if you spend your 15 minutes a day reading a Japanese lesson on a website or doing a few exercises in a textbook. Maybe if you can do this every day for 20 years, you’ll have a chance. But that’s not good enough for me. I don’t have that kind of time left 😉 After finding this site last year I’ve pretty well stopped posting on the fora and am instead living in my own little bit of Japan, USA, actually DOING the learning instead of just talking about it. Thanks for the attitude, Khatz. You’ve made me change from a wannabe into a learner.

  9. April 25, 2007 at 09:47

    Go Khatzu!

  10. dgraham
    May 6, 2007 at 06:41


    Dear Teacher:

    I wanted to send you this as an attachment because I tend to hit plateaus where I level out and take more time to master characters. When I am faced with a dead-end and feel no progress, I have found two methods of clearing up the problems.

    An example:

    For over a year I have confused these two characters: “packed” and “cottage,” assuming that both used crock pot and forgetting the stories.

    Two solutions to quicken and sharpen the mental image of Heisig’s stories:

    (1) Use questions that reflect a logical grammatical connection between or among parts of the kanji so that the answers to the questions are the actual sub-kanji or key words.

    (2) Use the word perfect to enlarge the kanji so details and connections are seen more clearly to discriminate between two characters that may look similar when the font size is very small.

    “PACKED” 詰
    (I tried but can’t copy and paste the 48 font)
    “COTTAGE” 舎
    (I tried but can’t copy and paste the 48 font)

    I recently discovered I needed better glasses and so they help; however, these kanji have been copied and pasted into a Microsoft word document so that they can be enlarged and effectively contrasted, thus more clearly understood. Solution 2 addresses a physical problem of actually seeing the text.

    Solution 1 addresses logical understanding of the story composed by Heisig or by the student (if Heisig’s story doesn’t work).

    “Packed,” for me, requires two questions: “What is packed?” and “What is its container?” When I answer them and connect them logically by the questions in my native language (I have no experience as a native speaker and reader of the kanji), then I can more readily store the image and accept it. I use my native language as a bridge.

    “Cottage,” for me, requires two questions: “What keeps the rain off me?” and “Where could food be stored?”

    I know that the ideal level to reach is forming the questions and stories in Japanese, finally letting go of the native language. However, these basic tools are encouraging me to add new kanji and increasing my confidence in retaining what I have studied.

    I really enjoyed the experience you shared from your university comedy group. Often mental cruelty is just thoughtless remarks, commenting on something the speaker can’t control.


  11. David
    September 12, 2008 at 11:17

    @ dgraham:

    >For over a year I have confused these two characters: “packed” and “cottage,” assuming that both used crock pot and forgetting the stories.

    They actually don’t both use the lidded crock. If you look closely, you’ll see that “Packed” uses the Aerosol Can and “Cottage” uses the Lidded Crock. For further demonstration of this, please view the frame for the Kanji for “Good Luck” and you’ll see what I mean.

    Hope this assists you in your confusion.

  12. Pedro
    October 26, 2008 at 23:10

    Hi Khatzumoto,

    I’m not learning Japanese (yet), but I’m planning on doing it in the future… However, I’m learning German and, although your method is mainly designed for the Japanese learner, it’s in accordance with my own ideas on language learning and I’d like to improve my learning. Now to the point: I try to listen to German on the bus and I search for content on the web and to talk to native speakers on skype. I’m currently using the lingq method, which I think you already know ( and I try to be immersed in the language. But can’t live in the language, as much as I try. How did you really do it before going to Japan? You had to talk to people in English, and how did you manage to only watch TV in Japanese?

    Sorry for the big post…

  13. mpz
    February 19, 2009 at 13:22

    Elitism is your enemy. Elitism is everybody’s enemy. Keep this in mind when you encounter academics who know the ins and outs of a language, but can’t speak or otherwise produce it for shit.

    Elitists are too caught up in their own conceptions about language and the necessity to know the exact mechanisms and made-up names for grammar, foisting that bullcrap onto helpless learners. Wtf is a mizenkei, I don’t know. I don’t care. Neither should you.

    I know I’m making a wild generalization here. Of course there are academics who can actually live the language they’ve spent decades researching.

    It boils down to the same thing as before: Just Do It. Don’t think, don’t bother with the nomenclature of grammar points, Just Do It.

  14. Angelique
    January 20, 2010 at 14:28

    Hello khatzumoto!

    Before i begin, i want to tell you that you are one facinating human
    being. I feel as though we perhaps share the same brain except i feel
    that you are more of what i really wish to be like.

    My name is Angelique and i am learner of Mandarin Chinese for about a

    I stumbled across your blog, searched through the table of contents,
    and picked “Language is Acting” to read first.

    I was completely blown away because all that you said is exactly how i
    feel and what i’ve been trying to explain people.

    You see, I am spanish by blood but i do not speak it and i always get
    made fun of because i do not speak Spanish, totally have no desire to
    speak Spanish, and is learning Chinese. Let me give you an example of
    what i go through.

    Random Person: *is speaking Spanish assumming i know how*
    Me: * is staring with a blank face like an idiot*
    Random Person: “You no speak spanish?”
    Me:…”no >>,”
    Random Person: *looks like he just had a heartattack*….”WHAT?!!!!”
    Me: “You see, Although my mother is hispanic she never was taught the
    language and although my father, who is puerto rican, speaks Spanish he
    never taught me….so yeah…”
    Random person: *shakes head out of pity*
    Me: *slowly walks away annoyed”….-_-+

    I try to reason with people like the that. I tell them that no one is
    “born” Spanish, no one is “born ” Chinese, and no one is “born”,
    Japanese. I tell them that culture and language are things that we are
    not born with but are taught. A bird is born knowing how to build a
    nest but a human being is not born knowing a culture or a specific
    language. A human may “look” like he’s Chinese, Spanish, or Japanese,
    but all that is is just looks.

    But even so, people still just dont get it. They call you a freak or
    not normal just because you LOOK like a Chinese, Spanish, or a Japanese
    but do not speak or do the things Chinese, Spanish, and Japanese people
    do because you werent taught that way.

    Besides that issue, I always saw learning language as acting. A
    successful actress isnt one who merely reads lines from a script but
    becomes it.

    A successful learner of a language can’t just merely speak the language
    but must become it.

    My other Chinese learning friends would be like “Angelique you sound so
    good!! Do you study a lot…?” And i would say “Yes i study everyday”.
    But honestly anyone can just study a language and never sound great no
    matter how much studying they do because they are not becoming the
    language. When i speak Chinese i become it even though i takes much
    courage and boldness on my part since i am naturally a shy timid
    individual but i somehow do it.

    Even so, I still stuggle though. My enemy is intimidation and is
    something that i fight hard to overcome. I get so intimidated when im
    around native speakers that i realize that i know nothing and i am
    still a “baby”.

    One thing that i wanted to ask you is how were you able to master the
    Japanese grammer so fast? You see, i am struggling with Chinese grammer
    and it is making me want to rip my brain out of my skull and stomp on

    Do you have any tips, advice on mastering grammer and how not to attack your own brain?

    Anyways, thank you for your encouragment. Now when people make fun of
    me i’ll say ” I have the right to learn the Chinese language!!! and
    chase them off with my chopsticks. xD

  15. Emp
    October 27, 2010 at 14:49

    The native language is body language and vocal tone. =D There are variations due to culture, sure, but I have yet to hear of any place on earth where a smile is a negative thing (unless you count creepy villain smiles…). And apparently the spiffy researchers of psychology and all that jazz have found that even newborn infants can both use and recognize (once their eyes & brain track well enough to realize that that thing they see is a face) facial expressions instinctively.

    No matter where you go, if you see a girl leaning away from the guy next to her who’s trying to hit on her it tends to mean she’s just not that into him (or maybe his breath just stinks?), and I can recognize semi-coherent rage no matter what language it comes in. A fist is a fist is a fist, and even the tells of lying are the same regardless of language. We are all humans after all, last time I checked, and we hold a lot more similarities than differences.

    The nice thing is that body language can help us fill in context gaps when we’re stumbling about trying to learn Japenese (or anything else for that matter). We just have to make sure we’re consciously paying attention*.

    During my middle school years my dad worked for a summer in Germany and I got to tag along. I particularly remember this one experience with a german girl around my age who was the daughter of one of my dad’s work colleagues. While they sat around talking and being old farts she and I played together and had no problem despite the fact that our knowledge of the other’s language barely extended past colors and numbers. We pointed at objects and exchanged terms some, but mostly we just got on by gesturing, showing, and giggling. And we came up with some imaginative, fairy-chasing dance games, not just playing on swings or something.

    Granted German and English are much closer than Japanese and English, but the language barrier is never as big in person as it is in say, text. Why else would we use emoticons so much even when chatting on the internetz in the same language, ne?

    *If you’re ever picked up by a flying saucer though, I make no guarantees about how useful body language will be for you.

  16. Chagami
    July 11, 2011 at 06:43

    I have a confession to make; I blow monkey sauce at make believe and pretending. So I have a question for all us AJATeers.

    How do you remind yourself that you are now a Japanese person, and how do you make yourself truly believe that this is true?

    Being Derrick from some TV show I’ve never heard of isn’t much help… 😛

    • July 11, 2011 at 07:51

      I don’t make believe I am Japanese. 🙂 I think the point is to never feel bad about your level of Japanese output or comprehension as we have only just started immersing ourselves in a Japanese environment.

      • Chagami
        July 11, 2011 at 23:34

        Thanks for the feedback! 🙂

        Yeah, you’re right about not feeling bad; I think I’m paranoid that I’m not paying close enough attention to my Japanese audio. Sure, it’s on all the time, so I *hear* it all the time, but I don’t know if I *listen* to it enough.

        Anyway, my pretending to be Japanese question stems from a technique for success where you believe you already are what you’re trying to be. I’m not really trying to become a Japanese citizen, I just want to learn the language and be in-tune with Japan, so perhaps that technique isn’t really that valid here.

        • July 11, 2011 at 23:51

          I see. I am not familiar with the technique you’ve mentioned; however, it sounds like a good way to inspire and keep up one’s motivation. Don’t let me discourage you from the technique you’ve mentioned. 🙂

  17. Suisei
    December 27, 2011 at 02:19

    Hmmm I have some questions about this. How can you read a language that you can’t understand or should you just memorize the romaji and then ween off of it? I’m not really sure what to do…

    • ahndoruuu
      December 28, 2011 at 20:44

      You don’t “read” it, per se, at least not in the beginning.  In the beginning, you will mostly be looking at Japanese.  No you won’t understand it.  But just as listening without understanding is essential, so too is looking without understanding.  Try to look at some real unadulterated Japanese text every day, and ideally several times per day.  Doesn’t have to be for very long.  Maybe just pick out some kanji you recognize or something, and then move on.  It’s up to you.  But you have to get used to the idea that that crazy Jyapaneeze writing is actual text.  That seems obvious, but a lot of times when our eyes come across foreign text,  they just glaze right over it and keep on going.  You need to train yourself not to avert your gaze.  Sounds a bit weird, but seriously.  Just go stare at some damn text.  Pretend its a staring contest between yourself and Japanese.  Are you gonna lose? Hell no you’re not.  😀

  18. Mark
    March 19, 2013 at 03:40

    So I’ve been really enjoying your website even though I’m learning French and not Japanese. I don’t know if you’re familiar with psycho-analysis or semiology but you sound very Lacanian in the beginning of this article, i.e. “l’Autre du langage” ya know?

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