English Time?

Megan Cheung, International Studies – History ‘19

Over the Christmas dinner table last week, my family started talking about the merits of learning a foreign language. One of my cousins learned French in high school but when he went on a trip to France, he did not really need to use it because most French people know English and use it when talking to people who are obviously tourists. There’s also the stereotype that French people don’t like it when foreigners try to speak French because they can’t stand hearing someone butcher their beautiful language. While certainly a subjective generalization, this brings up a little dilemma many foreign language learners may encounter while abroad: should I keep on using the language skills I learned or succumb to the temptation of using English?

After learning Japanese for about three years, I was lucky enough to go to Japan on a class trip several years ago, part of which involved visiting a local high school and doing a homestay with a student’s family for a few days. I was really eager to speak Japanese but at the same time, the students wanted to practice their English. What resulted was a relatively equal cultural exchange, although upon further reflection, I tended to shy away from initiating conversations with my host family due to my limited vocabulary. But when we transitioned from being exchange students to tourists, it became harder to utilize our Japanese.

Just by looking at us, anybody could tell that we were foreign students. We were a diverse group of twelve, ranging in ethnicity, height, and fashion style. So even though we all knew Japanese to some degree, people mostly talked to us in English probably because they saw us as tourists and thought it would be most beneficial to use a more mutually understandable language. To them (especially those working in the tourism/service sector), English is easier to use to ensure smoother, more efficient communication. But for me, I wanted to test my knowledge of Japanese because being able to communicate in Japan was one of the reasons why I learned it in the first place.

Some locals whom I interacted with were surprised but gladly answered my questions in flowing Japanese, which was helpful depending on whether I fully understood their answer. But I remember in some cases, I would ask a question in Japanese to a taxi driver or a restaurant owner but would be met with silence or a comment in English. It was in these moments where I felt the most awkward because I found myself caught in an odd internal conflict, in which I debated if I should persist in using Japanese or concede in using English. Most of the time I would go with the latter option since it was easier for conversational purposes but I still felt inclined to show that I could communicate in Japanese. Alas, this is more difficult to do when you travel as a tourist with English as the predominant lingua franca.

For foreign language learners, culturally immersive experiences, such as study abroad, are probably the best way to effectively practice what you’ve learned. Even simply traveling to less touristy areas of a country, where English is not as commonly spoken, can be immersive. However awkward it may be, “butchering” a language is an essential part of the learning experience that should not be shied away from.

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