Language and Identity

Two days ago I received a comment on one of my Japanese blogs (not Medium) from a Japanese lady who has lived for more than 45 years in the US. She wrote her comment in Japanese, but I didn’t really understand her Japanese. I felt like I was reading a machine translation from English. I went to search what kind of person she was and I found she is blogging in Japanese too. Her posts were written in OK Japanese, although I don’t know how much time she spends writing decent Japanese every time she posts on her blog.

Most of the time people’s comments are imperfectly written. They just casually leave their thoughts and feelings after they have read your posts, or some of them just want to say, “Hey, I have read your article”, telling you they exist. So no wonder that she didn’t care much about her short comment. In any case, I normally write back to their comments with a minimum of politeness, but I don’t know what to write back to her. Should I say, “Hi, thank you for your comment, but unfortunately I don’t really understand what you said. I think you might need to brush up your Japanese. If you need, I can recommend Rosetta Stone learning Japanese software. Hers is my review: https://xxxxxxx”? — I don’t think it’s a good idea though.

I guess that she has spent too much time not using Japanese and her Japanese is quite rusty. It sometimes happens when you leave your country and you spend a long time not using your language, but there are also some cases where people deliberately kill language buds.

I am Japanese and I am very happy that my primary language is Japanese because Japanese is so difficult to learn as a second language. For example, learning English is a little easier compared with learning Japanese. After you have learned 26 letters in capitals and lower case, you can in theory read newspapers in English. At least you can guess how to pronounce the words. However, when it comes to learning Japanese, you cannot read Japanese newspapers even after you have learned 50 Hiragana and 50 Katakana letters from the Japanese alphabets. You need to remember at least 2,000 Kanji letters to read Japanese articles.

Japanese children spend 6 years in primary school from the age of 6 to 12 to learn 1,026 Kanji letters and they learn another 1,110 letters spending 3 years in junior high schools. Japanese people think that learning English is difficult (and it really is difficult for us), but not many Japanese people realise how lucky it is having Japanese as the primary language.

When I lived in Hong Kong, I was working for a company which was run by a Japanese couple. Both of them, a wife and husband, were Japanese, but their two sons both went to an international school in Hong Kong and then studied in universities in the US. Therefore, they are fluent in English just like native English speakers, but they cannot read Japanese, don’t really understand the Japanese news on TV, although they can manage to make a conversation in Japanese. I never said to my bosses, but honestly I was thinking the parents had done a stupid thing to their sons. The parents have their stolen children’s opportunity to naturally learn Japanese which might have been a bridge language to learn Chinese which was one of the main languages in Hong Kong. Furthermore, language is strongly related to their identity.

This is a topic which language experts have already pointed out for a decade. Initially, there are lots of dialects in Chinese. One of the biggest dialects is Cantonese which is mainly spoken in the Canton region and Hong Kong. However, since the Chinese government forces the schools to teach in Mandarin “Pu Tong Hua”, less and less children speak Cantonese even outside of schools. They have to speak Mandarin at schools even though they have to speak Cantonese to their parents. Gradually, they reckon that Mandarin must be more valuable than Cantonese and that’s why everyone speaks Mandarin at schools. They even end up looking down on their parents who can only speak Cantonese.

It’s a shame that some languages are not respected because of the environmental factors. Nowadays, the language barrier is getting lower in the scale of the world, but languages are not only tools of communication they are also our culture, history, philosophy and identity.

Also, language ability could be grown or degraded in your life. In a way, I am happy with the fact that the Japanese lady, who left her comment on my blog, is blogging in Japanese. It must be a good rehabilitation for her Japanese. No matter whether it’s your primary language or second language, the language is like a bicycle. When you use it everyday it can lead you to a fantastic world, but you need to give it regular maintenance to avoid getting rusty.