- Ok, next question. What color is your toothpaste?
- え？ どういう事？ 歯磨きの色？ アメリカンジョークだね
- (I wait for a answer)
- [no answer]
This was the interaction between my students and I that sparked a day long series of thoughts in my brain, which culminated into the following research question:
Is there a positive correlation between the the degree of physical homogeneity of a population and the individual-level incompetence in spoken English of said population?
I have a lot of explaining to do.
The question, "What color is your toothpaste?" that I asked was part of a simple game to get my Japanese high school students warmed up to speak English. Although I do admit to the weird nature of the question, I would have never guessed that my students would choose to not answer despite fully understanding the question. Also what strikes me as peculiar is that they decided to use the word American instead of my name. I am the one who asked the question after all. I asked myself, "Why did they say American instead of James?" Their knowledge of American culture is not extensive. Most of them have never been to America, and they do not follow any popular American TV shows. I know this because I often reference modern-day American pop culture in my lessons to give the material a little context and I am always met with deft ears. Conversely they know much more about me. I have been teaching them for about a year, I openly express my personality whenever appropriate, and I often use my personal life experiences with learning Japanese to try to relate with their struggle with English. Yet when I say something weird, it is not I, James, who say it, but I, the American. Drawing from seemingly random pieces of information in my brain, the answer that made the most sense to me also happened to be fit perfectly into my puzzle mental of why Japanese people as a population kind of suck at speaking English. I doubt this was a coincidence.
Japan is a very homogeneous society - on multiple levels. I choose to focus on the superficial level for now. From the outsiders (non-Japanese) viewpoint this means many Japanese people share common appearances. Dark hair, often straight. Dark eyes. Minimal body hair. This appearance is so ingrained in the communal homogeneous Japanese mind that my wife, who is 100% Japanese, is often mistaken for half Japanese half something else simply because her eyes are a slightly lighter tint of dark. They are still dark in comparison to mine (hazel). From the insiders (Japanese) viewpoint, this degree of physical homogeneity speaks of something that people who reign from physically/ethnically diverse countries, e.g. most English-speaking countries, have a hard time understanding. I say this because I didn't understand it until now. From the Japanese individual's point of view, it is possible that their mass physical homogeneity takes precedence over their individuality as the defining factor of their identity. In other words, if the entire Japanese population were asked at gunpoint, "who are you?", there would be more individuals who would respond, "I am Japanese" before they would respond with their own name. (This is not taking into account the person holding the gun. I am sure this would have some effect on the outcome and what an interesting experiment it would be to conduct.)
Assuming this is true, it makes sense therefore, that my classroom of 40 high school students, who identify themselves first as Japanese before anything else, would just reflect that part of themselves when describing someone else. Hence the "American joke" instead of "James' joke".
Now how did I go from here to wondering whether this was correlated to their incompetence in spoken English you most likely are NOT asking as I am sure no one has been able to follow my insanely jumpy train of thought in this article?
Well, to explain this I must talk about another random piece of information I drew from the black hole that is my brain. I speak of the central theorem behind most of Chomsky's early work, to which I was not introduced through Chomsky's work but through the book The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker. I speak of the idea that one's native spoken tongue is not something that is taught by another human but is something every human learns instinctively, i.e. a human learns to speak it's native spoken language(s) in the same way a bird learns to fly and a butt learns to poop. This idea dives into topics of human evolution and environmental particulars to which the human brain had to adapt, which are all important topics to explore, but I will only state here that spoken language came about as a way for humans to work together through the then (the era of human hunter-gatherers) new phenomenon known as socialization. Whatever the shape of sounds that was human communication prior to spoken language, it just wasn't fit for the environmental demands of humans once they realized they could get a lot more work done if they banded together. The point to remember here is that spoken language and human collaboration (socialization) were both innovations born from each other mutually. One was used to support the growth of the other and vice versa.
Many aspects between today's Japanese society and the human society in which spoken language came to be have changed. Japanese people no longer survive off of hunting game and gathering produce, instead they hunt money and exchanging this money for produce. But one aspect has not changed - spoken language and socialization are mutually inclusive in their growth. In other words, the process of socialization in Japan (in this case hunting money and exchanging it for produce) is mutually fueled by and fuels, the process of learning a spoken language. It just happens that the spoken language most often used in this type of socialization is Japanese.
And now I tie all this fluff together.
If someone looks similar enough to you to be widely considered homogeneous, you will instinctively speak with this person in the language that fueled your socialization into the location where you are currently looking at this person. In the case of locations like Japan that widely considered homogeneous, it will be Japanese. If this person looks distinct enough from you to be widely considered heterogeneous you will instinctively speak with this person in the language that fueled your socialization into the location where you are currently looking at this person. In the case of locations, like South Africa that are widely considered heterogeneous, it will be English.
So far, nothing I have said sounds shocking, and that is ok. It doesn't need to.
I will end with this.
If a location that is widely considered physically homogeneous, like Japan, desires that it's people become competent in spoken English, there may be no other choice but to introduce more physically heterogeneous individuals into the location simply because the human brain has not adapted to learn a spoken language any other way. This idea, for people living outside of Japan who may not be aware, is scary as shit to Japanese people.
I still haven't made a tight connection between how my students seeing me as American before James being a reflection of how they see themselves could logically lead to their not being able to speak English well. Lets see if someone else can make this connection for me. More the minds the merrier.
Editors Note (which is me the author) - Please pay attention to fact that I never mentioned written competence or reading competence in this entire article. Those human innovations came about approximately 600 katrillion years after spoken language so they are not relevant to my argument (for now, but I would love for someone to convince me otherwise). Also if you have ever received an immaculately written email from someone only to meet the person, in person, and have no clue what is coming out of their mouth, or if you have seen a child struggle to speak even 3 words yet capable of reading an entire novel, then you will know that written, reading, and spoken language competencies are different brain functionings, born from different brain adaptations to different environments. Also I treat listening and speaking in ways similar to how I treated speaking and socialization in this article.