Occasionally I take a break from the mom and hooker jokes and do something even worse: I go way out my decidedly shallow intellectual depth. I think the last time was when we talked about the nature of knowledge — the whole zero-certainty idea (not uncertainty, because that’s a form of reverse-certainty, but zero-certainty, a complete absence of expectation), particularly as it relates to self-confidence and stuff.
This time, it’s back to a more explicitly to a language-related thing. I guess if you were gonna give this a topic name, it might be called a mix of applied linguistics epistemology and semiotics…But, I don’t even really know what all those words actually mean and I’m just using them to seem intelligent, so…suffice it say that today I’d like to share some ideas with you about speaking, as in speaking Japanese, your adopted language.
Specifically, what I’d like to talk about is how, when it comes to speaking, a lot of times, you hear learners of an L2 lament that they have, or are having, trouble expressing themselves, especially compared to their ability to express themselves in their L1. This is often accompanied by some assertion to the effect that they’ll never be able to express themselves in their L2 as freely and lucidly as they can in their L1 1.
But lately I’ve begun to wonder — is that really true? Are you really having a problem expressing yourself in Japanese/whatever your L2 is, or is there something else — something deeper — happening? It’s a simple enough question, but the answer isn’t as straightforward, because, as it turns out, there are actually three or four separate things going on here:
- Actual linguistic (in)ability issues
- This is where you’re simply not used to the language, the L2. You’re a relative beginner. So, yeah, your powers of expression are going to be weaker and you fully expect them to be so. Most beginners are accepting of this fact and don’t have too much angst about it 2
- Unfair comparison to L1
- This is more of an “intermediate blues” thing. You’re not a beginner, but you’re not good. Yet. So you start to get frustrated. You start to compare multi-decade experience in an L1 to what typically amounts to a few hundred hours’ L2 exposure, an activity that is not only unfair and self-defeating, but also mathematically stupid. This state of affairs can be easily resolved by pointing out the arithmetic of skill, an arithmetic that not even toddlers, with their magical language midi-chlorians</sarcasm>, can escape.
- Unduly optimistic evaluation of powers of expression in L1
Bottom line: you’re not nearly as good at your native language as you think you are. No, really. Yes, you, girl who always got perfect grades in English class. I can see you over there, guy who both knows what “skeuomorph” means and can spell it correctly without checking. And this is perhaps especially true of people like you, because people have been telling you all your life how awesome you are at “language arts” 5, and so now your entire identity, your entire self-concept is wrapped up, coiled all nice and tight in and around the counterfeit totem pole that is your vaunted verbal acuity.
I’m not saying you’re not good at your L1. I’m sure you are. I’m saying that a lot of your precious “expressive power” isn’t expressive power at all. It’s just…a combination of habit, triangulation and resignation.
- Habit: You are in the habit of using your L1. You’re used to it. You’re comfortable in it. You’ve worn a nice groove into it kind of like Homer Simpson’s couch has molded to his buttocks.
- Triangulation: AKA circumlocution. Whenever you can’t express an idea accurately (which is surprisingly often), as in really really hit that nail on the head, like a nothing-but-net swoosh of a three-pointer, you instead express it in terms of what it’s not, what it’s like and what it’s a combination of. In basketball terms, you rebound and use the backboard and pass the ball around and sometimes just throw something up there to beat the shot clock. Sorry, I was playing NBA2k13 the other day on my friend’s iPhone, so…
- Resignation: Without even realizing it, you are resigned to being unable to completely and perfectly express yourself in your L1, your native language. You’ve just accepted it. And you’re so used to accepting it, so habitualized to triangulation and resignation and making do with expressing 80% of what you mean, that you don’t even notice any more. You’re like a cat lady who can no longer smell the cat on herself.
If you ever stopped to think about it, I mean really think about it, you would realize that there are and always have been significant gaps between your thoughts, the ideas and feelings in your head, and the words that come out of your mouth 6. But you don’t think. About it. You ignore it and you take your 78~80% L1 powers and treat them as if they were 100~150% and compare them to your L2 and find your L2 self wanting. Well, of course you do! Of course your airbrushed Cameron Diaz linguistic abilities have no acne. You’re not looking at them accurately.
Why the numbers 78% and 80%? No real reason. They just sounded cool and vaguely right. I got the 78% figure from Saito Hitori (on-and-off Japan’s #1 individual taxpayer and therefore one of her richest citizens) who likes to say something to the effect of: “There is no such thing as perfection for humans. There is no 100%. Humans are perfect at 78%. 78% is human perfection” — I’m paraphrasing, but not too wildly. The 80% figure is from the Pareto principle as expressed by Richard Koch in his so-good-it-turns-me-on 80/20 book series.
So the takeaway point here is: make do. When it comes to speaking, make do with the words and phrases you already know — the simpler the better. And you know what’ll happen? You’ll feel better and do better and people will think you are better at Japanese. Weird, huh? How could working less and using less make you seem more awesome? I’m waiting for Alanis Morissette to call me so she can include this situation in the acoustic hip-hop remix of Ironic. If you want to be understood, speak less “accurately”: it’s like rain on your wedding day.
Speaking from personal experience (as if I ever spoke any other way ), as far as your interlocutors are concerned, your worst (i.e. most confusing) conversations in Japanese will be the ones where you tried to express yourself 100% instead of 80%. Why? Well, because your speech will not only be more halting and jarring than is comfortable (even in real, unscripted dialog), but also ridiculously convoluted in its phrasing, because it’s trying to stay 100% loyal to some “original” (usually English-language) thought in your head — in a way that just doesn’t work in Japanese. Better to use the simpler, more natural phrasing that communicates 80% of what you want to say, than aim for some 100% that won’t be reached and isn’t worth reaching for.
You don’t have a language problem, you have a humanity problem. To be human is to be misunderstood 7 most of the time and in most places, even by the people who like you, even by yourself. And that’s perhaps part of why we spend so much time and effort communicating: not to eradicate the problem but to mitigate it.
So if you’re a relatively game boy advanced learner, next time you’re frustrated with your speech, don’t fret and try to raise your vocabulary level 8: raise your acceptance level instead. Be more accepting of what you’ve got to work with right now. This is similar to though not quite exactly the same as lowering your standards. In any case, fundamentally, your L1 standards are already low; you just didn’t realize that they were low. Until now. Go forth, then. Do yourself a favor. Give yourself the gift of resignation.
Am I saying to speak badly and make mistakes because it’s all good in the ‘hood? No. Not at all. I still hew closely to the AntiMoon advice of only saying things you’re sure are correct 9 What I am saying is: say L2 things you are sure are correct 10 and that you know how to say even if they don’t 100% match what was in your head. Because that’s how you talk in your L1 anyhow.
- And lest you think this is a one-way problem, a Japanese girl I know who’s learning English shared this very same concern with me. ↩
- I feel like I’m using angst incorrectly here…like I can’t use it in a phrase like this, but…I’ll try not to have to much angst about it ↩
- somebody, please, correct this Latin! I’m sure there must be something wrong with it ↩
- I always think of the Game Boy Advance when I hear this word; obviously I was familiar with the word before the console came out, but now…it’s all about the GBA ↩
- The gay, PC name for English class ↩
- i.e. the words you speak when expressing those thoughts. To some extent, a language creates and/or enables the thoughts in the first place, but we’ll just politely ignore that for now ↩
- and imperfect? ↩
- I’m not saying “don’t learn new words”. Do. It’ll make you literally and figuratively richer. I’m just saying…yeah…don’t freak out about vocab in particular or expressive power in general. Don’t make it your problem. ↩
- AJATT: AntiMoon’s Japanese lovechild ↩
- in terms of grammar/vocab/syntax/common usage/whatever ↩