Learning Language /
Learning Self

Karen Ogulnick

This essay also appears in the book, Language Crossings: Negotiating the
Self in a Multicultural World
published by Teachers College Press.



One of my first childhood friends in Flushing, New York was a Chinese girl named Wendy who lived next door. Except for my grandparent's house, where Yiddish was spoken frequently, Wendy's house was the only place I recall hearing a language other than English. I experimented with my own version of "Chinese" at home, stringing together the Chinese sounds I heard at Wendy's house. My grandfather heard me, and became intrigued. "Can you really speak Chinese?" he asked me. When I insisted that I was really speaking Chinese, he proceeded to quiz me, just to be sure: "How do you say this in Chinese?" he'd asked as he pointed to various household objects, and I'd promptly come up with my own Chinese version. "Mary, she's speaking Chinese!" My grandmother nodded her head and smiled in a way that said she wasn't convinced. But grandpa's enthusiasm remained strong, and became an even greater source of amusement to the rest of the family than my newly-discovered linguistic talent. Every once in a while someone in my family recalls the time "when grandpa really believed Karen could speak Chinese."

Ever since I was very young, I wanted to travel. When I was nineteen I finally had my first chance to go abroad. As a college student in London, I lived in an international hostel with other foreign students, most of whom were from Asia and Africa. We would take turns cooking and tasting one another's cultures -- Indonesian, Indian, Malaysian, Thai, Chinese, Iranian, Tunisian, Ethiopian. I also contributed a dish of my own: spaghetti a la Bronx. After four months of our dinners together not only did I develop a taste for hotter and spicier foods, the many stories I heard about the faraway places and the people that my friends were so homesick for gave me a craving to travel more extensively. A few months later, I did. What began as an invitation to spend the Chinese New Year with friends in Hong Kong turned into a 13-month journey through South-East Asia.

As I traveled from one country to another, I enjoyed communicating primarily through gestures. I imagined that I could read minds and send telepathic messages. I focused on facial expressions and zoomed in on eye contact. Indeed, there were many times I wanted to know what people were actually saying; however, I also often sensed that I was at a distinct advantage not knowing. Ambiguity felt liberating. I didn't have to conform as much to expectations or behavior I might consider restrictive. I could move in and out of culturally-imposed definitions more freely.

While being a traveler gave me an enormous sense of freedom, living in a foreign country for an extended period of time was a different experience altogether. I first went to Japan in 1985 to teach English in Japanese high schools. Before my departure, I spoke not even one word of Japanese. (Well, maybe "sushi"). I convinced myself that people in Japan could speak English, and if they couldn't, I was planning on teaching it to them. Almost immediately upon my arrival on that cold, wet July day, I realized, when nobody spoke English, that learning Japanese might be a good idea. In spite of what I understood logically, I made very little if any effort to do so. On one level, I wanted to be included in the culture, but on another, I felt comfortable remaining outside of it. I also was convinced that it would be almost impossible for me to learn Japanese. Aside from my stint at Chinese, I did not consider myself a good language learner.

To my surprise, my extremely limited Japanese did not prevent me from making friends with people who didn't speak English, and even learning, to some degree, sado (tea ceremony) and ikenebo (flower arrangement). These classes were recommended to me by my supervising teacher at the high school because they were considered appropriate for young single women. They were conducted entirely in Japanese. I also watched a lot of T.V. Without understanding a word, I was thoroughly engrossed in the soap operas, samurai dramas, sumo wrestling matches, anime (cartoons), even the commercials.

I worked six long days a week in Japanese schools. On the seventh day I was usually invited to attend an outing with Japanese colleagues or friends. I spent months not understanding most of what people said. (This was often the case even when they spoke English.) At this point I was becoming well-versed at interpreting body language, pitch, tone, volume, and silence. I felt I could sense the emotional climate. I tried to guess when an interaction was harmonious and when I thought someone was being overly polite, stiff and compliant. It was reassuring at least to think that I had some idea what was going on.

The first time I realized I was absorbing Japanese occurred about three months after I first arrived in Japan. One day while I was riding on a streetcar on my way to work, an elderly woman entered at one of the stops and sat down right next to me in the empty car. When she began to speak to me in Japanese I cut her off with an expression I memorized -- zenzen wakarimasen -- I can't understand a word of what you're saying. This didn't seem to discourage her, however, from continuing to talk to me. I just smiled and nodded as she spoke and felt relieved when we arrived at her stop, at which point I waved her off with the one other word (in addition to sushi) that comprised my entire active Japanese vocabulary -- sayonara. Once alone with my thoughts I realized that I understood some of what she had said, something about the weather, and that the entire conversation was in Japanese. This sudden awareness -- that I was beginning to learn Japanese -- was exhilerating, and from that moment on, I could no longer resist being swept up in the current of Japanese language and culture. The first stage of my verbal ability consisted of imitating what I heard. This posed several problems since it is not always appropriate for two speakers to use the same level of politeness and formality with one another. For instance, when speaking with my landlord, an elderly grandmother, I repeated words and expressions that are typically spoken to children. Similarly, I responded to shopkeepers and other people providing services with the same extremely polite expressions with which they greeted me, such as irrashaimase (welcome), which prompted some startled looks from people who apparently were not used to customers greeting them back in honorific language. I also picked up some "male" and regional expressions from friends and colleagues, which may have sounded cute and funny in some contexts, such as when we were out drinking, but in more serious situations, these same expressions became crude and disrespectful. I could tell by the grimaces on people's faces. People rarely corrected me directly; on the contrary, they showered me with praise, Nihongo ga o-jouzu desu ne (you're Japanese is very good), to which I often responded by saying, "thank you." Another no-no. It took me a while, but finally I realized that the compliments were intended as an indirect way of correcting me.

One of these occasions was when I met a high school principal for the first time. Before leaving his office I bowed and said gokuroosamadeshita, thank you very much. He responded by telling me how well I spoke Japanese, which prompted me to thank him again, and he bowed back and responded with a different thank you, osukaresamadeshita. Outside his office, a Japanese English teacher was kind enough to enlighten me on the many different "thank you's in Japanese, depending on whom you are thanking for what. Apparently, I thanked the principal for doing some demeaning work for me. That's when he told me how well I spoke Japanese. The second time he thanked me for my trouble (realizing I was having a hard time learning the language). It would have been more appropriate to use a polite expression that is used in a formal context: domo arigato gozaimasu. It didn't take long for me to learn the ubiquitous sumimasen (thank you that also means excuse me), and the more humble and polite osoreirimasu (thank you that also means I'm sorry). With friends I learned to be more casual with arigato, or even more intimately, domo (thanks). And (this one took me a while), I learned that when someone compliments you, it is more appropriate to modestly reject it than to accept it by saying "thank you."

Even in the use of directions, the Japanese have still found a way to express their status and humility. As a world traveler, I had developed some confidence in my sense of direction. This, however, was shaken when I began to travel independently in Japan. I've always taken for granted that "up" means north and "down" means south, but that is not always the case in Japan. This made it particularly confusing to travel by train, since trains are referred to as "up" or "down" trains. Since all trains arriving at Tokyo are called "up" trains, the important thing to know, apparently, is not the actual direction you are going, but whether the city of your destination has a higher or lower socio-economic status than the one you started from.

Status is also marked in the psychological and geographical division of Japan into two parts: Eastern Japan, which is the side facing China, is also known as "the backside," and Western Japan, is called, "the frontside." The contradiction here is that, while Japanese culture strongly values tradition, it is the more modern and future-oriented "frontside" of Japan that is afforded higher status, as people who resided in Japan's "backside," often self-effacingly referred to themselves as "country bumpkins." Because my job required a lot of traveling, I had many opportunities to meet people. If I had my own car, I probably wouldn't have learned as much Japanese. The trains and buses were the best language laboratories. While in transit, it might have looked as though I was reading an English newspaper, but more often I'd be eavesdropping on the conversation behind me, sometimes even taking notes. I also had to ask for directions often and found it very encouraging when people not only understood me, but responded and sometimes even initiated further conversation -- in Japanese. These were mostly superficial, polite exchanges, but there were a few surprising occasions when I became involved in deep discussions.

Similar to the way people sometimes tell fellow travelers their life stories, women I barely knew shared intimate details of their lives with me. While being invited in this way into people's lives helped to make me feel more inside the culture, telling me their stories may have been a way for Japanese women to connect with the outside world. I was told tales of forced arranged marriages that made me feel relieved to be American. I believed I was freer than these Japanese women I had met. In contrast to the super-modern image that the U.S. press promoted of Japan prior to my first departure in 1984, the society in which I was living reminded me more of an ancient time when women were controlled and constrained to activities and roles revolving around the household.

When I returned to Japan for the third time in 1993, I saw things quite differently. This time, looking at Japanese women seemed more like looking into a mirror, not one that reflected back my exact image, but one that revealed, even where there were differences, much about the condition of being a woman in my own culture. As a thirty-two year-old single Jewish-American woman living in Hiroshima, I contemplated the contradictions of learning to speak and of being silenced by a culture. My inside/outside location as a participant observer in Japan gave me a vantage point from which I could notice oppressive structures in both Japan and the U.S., particularly how they pertain to women, that is difficult to do from a space within the culture. The glass ceiling became more visible.

Ironically, learning the importance the role status plays in communication -- that levels of politeness and formality are governed by such factors as age, class, social position, and gender -- inhibited me: I felt self-conscious and afraid of making mistakes that would make me look like a stupid, unrefined American in many Japanese people's eyes. My desire to fit in as much as possible to the society that was nurturing my new Japanese persona motivated me to work on producing softer, more polite and refined ways of speaking. The way Japanese was affecting me physically did not occur to me until the first time I saw myself on a video, which a friend taped at the end of my second year in Japan. I watched this non-Japanese woman, sitting demurely on her knees, delicately covering her mouth with her hands as she giggled, speaking in a high pitched tone of voice. She seemed so Japanese. I knew that she had my face and hair, but I could hardly recognize the rest of myself.

Through learning Japanese I learned something about my first language and culture, which leads me to conclude that there is a dialectic between language learning and identity that is inextricably linked to our historical experiences and the socio-political contexts in which we find ourselves. Beyond knowing words and grammar, learning a language involves acquiring a role, and knowing how to act according to that social definition. It is knowing, sometimes tacitly, sometimes consciously, what others approve and disapprove of, how to sit, how to enter a room, how to read nuances, when to speak and when to be silent, how to accept a gift, how to ask for a favor, how to ward off unwanted invitations. Knowing this is also inhabiting, willingly and unwillingly, consciously and subconsciously, a location in the hierarchy. In other words, language learning entails a process of fitting into one's place in society, or rather, one's imposed place.



please email ducts with your comments.