Deteriorating Vernacular of The Young Can’t Handle Abstract Thought.
Do Nikkei/Ijusha Speakers Have a Role to Play?
Since I started teaching English/Japanese translation part time in recent years, I’ve been facing a problem with the way English is spoken in North America today. The vernacular in Canada and US nowadays, especially among the younger generations, has deviated so much from the “standard spoken English” the students learned back in Japan that learning English has become so much more difficult. If more native speakers spoke the “standard English” that TV newscasters and commentators use, instead of constantly introducing casual, child-like styles and slang into the linguistic mainstream, the students would find it much easier to learn to speak and write the language. It would also be much easier to teach it.
Up to, say, the mid-sixties when the hippie counter-culture began to influence the language more and more through the mass media, one could expect an average university graduate to be able to express himself or herself adequately even with regard to abstract ideas. The deterioration in the quality of spoken English in US and Canada has been often discussed by linguists, teachers, writers over the years. One of the most recent to do so is Clark Whelton, a former speech writer for Edward Koch, the mayor of New York from 1978 to 89, and subsequently for Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Whelton calls the phenomenon “Vagueness, the linguistic virus that infected spoken language in the late 20th century.” (National Post, 15/2/2011).
This phenomenon has resulted in “reduced capacity for abstract thought,” according to a Vassar professor that Whelton quotes. Immature speech patterns used to be drummed out of the kids in ninth grade, but no longer. “Today, whatever way kids communicate seems to be fine with their high school teachers,” the professor points out.
The speech-writer gives an example of Vagueness. On TV a woman is talking about a baby squirrel she had run into in her yard. “And he was like, you know, ‘Helooooo, what are you looking at and stuff. And I’m like, you know, ‘Can I, like pick you up?’ and he goes, like, ‘Brrrp brrrp, brrrp, ‘ and I’m like, you know, ‘Whoa, that is so wow!’” She rambles, on punctuating her speech with facial expression and eye movements, but says practically nothing specific about her encounter with the squirrel. She appeared to be in her mid-40s, old enough to be an “early carrier of the contagion,” he says.
Having had to “watch my English” professionally ever since I started working for a news agency back in 1966, I have several peeves of my own in all this Vagueness. For example, all but gone now is the distinction between “amount” as in amount of water, sugar, effort, and anything else uncountable without units, and “number” as in the number of people, casualties, animals, cars and anything countable. It’s all “amount” now. Even some newscasters say “the amount of people” and “the amount of water” in the same breath. Also, nearly lost is the way one used to accentuate a set of identical words—like “import,” “combat” and “survey”—differently to indicate whether they are a noun or verb. The accent should be “IMport” for the noun and “imPORT” for the verb, similarly “COMbat / comBAT” and “SURvey / surVEY.” But many newscasters nowadays tend to stress the first syllable regardless of the noun/verb distinction.
As picky as I am, I also don’t like the way “increase” is today used to mean anything getting bigger. We used to distinguish in writing and in speech between “increase” (to make or become greater in size, amount, number or intensity) and “enhance” (to make greater as in value, desirability or attractiveness). When was the last time you even heard the word “enhance?” “Increase” covers everything now. So, given the deplorable state spoken English is in, is there a role to play for us in the Nikkei/ijusha community?
For starters, have you ever had the experience of trying to explain to non-Nikkei friends words like gaman, ganbaru, shikataganai—common Japanese expressions that also became, among other things, words of consolation and encouragement Nikkei Canadians and Americans used in order to withstand the pain and hardship of forced internment during Word War II? We usually resort to simple definitions like, respectively “to put up with,” “to do the best one can” and “that’s the way it is,” even as we feel the frustration that the English somehow doesn’t quite capture the nuances of a different culture. Whether you are a native English speaker or one who had to learn English as a foreign tongue, such a mental effort alone is quite an exercise in abstract thought. However large or small we feel this cultural divide we face to be, it compels us to think more in the abstract, perhaps, than mono-cultural people who’ve got it “all figured out.”
I also mentioned in my November 2010 article here that the English Nikkei folks speak is as close to standard English as one can get among the various kinds of English spoken by ethnic minorities. I may be treading on thin ice here, but one of our cultural traits that could be a factor here might be an almost an instinctual respect many of us feel toward anything well-established and authoritative, including the spoken language. It could be a holdover from old Confucian values. It is certainly known that old values of national cultures tend to survive longer in émigré communities.
I for one wouldn’t mind at all if, for some reason, Nikkei and ijusha should get a reputation for a tendency to use somewhat old-fashioned English, or “proper English” to some of us old-timers. We would then be playing a small part in stemming the steady deterioration of the spoken language. Of course, a young (for me anyone under 50) Nikkei person is perfectly free to talk just like his or her non-Nikkei peers. But if instead of sounding like, “. . . so she went like ‘oh my god’ and I’m like so, you know . . . ,” he or she should occasionally resort to an antiquated verb like “to say,” why not?
Incidentally, have you noticed how newscasters and commentators on BBC generally speak more clearly than their North American counterparts, and as a result often sound more thoughtful and intelligent? Now, on the subject of clear enunciation . . . no, I think you’ve already heard enough from this self-styled linguistic conservative. So . . . I’m like thank you, thank you y’all for readin’ all this stuff (I do talk that way to my jazz buddies).