When viewing a society from the outside, you begin to realize many fundamentals of human nature. I particularly noticed the way humans, in the majority of circumstances, revert to the easiest form of communication.
While in Japan, I was often introduced as ‘an exchange student from America,’ which led to assumptions that I only spoke English. Many of the thoughtful Japanese nervously introduced themselves in English. I would immediately introduce myself in Japanese and assure them I could understand the language fine. Like a flipped switch, their anxious expressions would smooth out in surprised relief. A conversation in Japanese would ensue, the speed gradually accelerating as they became more and more aware of my level of fluency.
Sometimes people would forget I was an English speaker. Then they would hear me talking to my family via phone or Skype, or speaking to one of the American English teachers. “Oh, yeah. You’re American, aren’t you, Colleen?” Really, it was quite flattering.
There was a vow I heard often: “I need to get better at English. Okay, Colleen, from now on I’ll talk to you in English.” And five minutes later, they would have forgotten and returned to Japanese. And why wouldn’t they? The difference between Japanese and English is that one will allow them to easily get their point across, and the other would not. The choice is obvious. And isn’t this the case in nearly every situation of human contact? To someone with deafness, humans will use sign language. But it’s not only in circumstances where adaptibility is necessary. Often, humans are, frankly, lazy. They text because it’s faster and easier than calling. They e-mail because it’s faster and easier than writing a letter. It’s our nature to find efficient pathways in every possible aspect of our lives. Which makes me ponder the psychology behind a study abroad, since it’s certainly not a fast, easy, or efficient course. But then again, what better way to obtain fluency in a language than immersing yourself in it? And thus human nature wins again.
Switching between languages always feels strange for me. Like taking a bite of orange, and drinking milk immediately after. I myself preferred to stick to Japanese. Thanks to everyone’s eagerness to learn English, however, that didn’t quite work out. I used English when I helped out in the middle school English classes, when English teachers spoke to me in English for practice, when my host siblings needed help with their English homework, when my host parents had questions about English, when my third host mom wanted me to help my five-year-old host sister learn English (she had a brilliant plan to have her daughter learn English so they could vacation in the States), when my classmates needed guidance on pronunciation, and of course when I communicated with native English speakers. A year in Japan is by no means a year without English. But why are the Japanese so desperate to learn English? And that brings me back to my main point: it’s efficient.
If you know English, you can communicate with a very large percentage of the world. Japanese is used solely in Japan; English is used in countless countries. We often take our language for granted, but we hold the key to international communication. And for the Japanese to want to be a part of that is only to be expected; it’s human nature.