Robot English

How to cope with a robot co-worker? Each day I come to work and have to deal with a man who refuses to speak like a human. I just want normal. A normal, simple, English speaker. Not a simple person. I don’t want anyone to be simple. I am just asking for clarity.

For example. “Is this sentence correct?” That would be a basic way of clarifying whether an error has been made in syntax or grammar. I could thus respond in my own standard, simple, understandable way something like, “Yes, it is.” Or some derivative.

Instead, each day I am confronted with bespoke works of linguistic gymnastics so bizarre that I barely have the energy to respond upon hearing them.

“Is this sentence correct?” becomes “In your perception, this sentence which has been written on the blackboard, is it accurate, in your opinion?”

An exchange like this might seem innocuous. Maybe just the spoken English of a man trying to impress with his second language skills. But it is the default of so many “elder” speakers of English in Japan to use unnecessary verbiage for such mundane conversations.

This default must have been encouraged in them when they learned English. Speak to impress, not to communicate. And those who “impressed” the most find themselves as teachers of English, or translators, or government advisors.

It leads to Japan’s “Go to Travel” tourism campaign. It leads to Homac, a popular home supply depot, displaying slogans like “Do Create Mystyle”. Of course there are an infinite amount of other horrific Japanlish examples, just search. My point being that these painful expressions of English, whether in advertising or in conversation, badly reflect on how English has been commodified in the last century in Japan.

You see it’s not about communicating. It’s about status. Memorize this list of words, pay for a juku to train to pass an Eiken test, “earn” your certificate. Congratulations! Now you are qualified to develop our national ad campaign. Of course, use English, use ridiculous words, string them together any which way! You have credentials.

Back to the schools, where I witness the worst of these offenses. I taught a special needs class the other day. Usually the special needs students have the best communicative ability because they haven’t been beaten down by the Japanese pressure to conform. They bypass that, which is great for me. Kids raise their hands in special needs class. They try to speak, out loud, with enthusiasm. But even there English is bastardized by this need to be impressive, rather than expressive.

Students where giving a brief introduction of themselves to me and the class. They had prepared their short speeches, probably worked on them for weeks. A few simple sentences about what they like, don’t like, hobbies, etc. But it seems that a robot infiltrated the class, and made some “adjustments”. Here’s a snippet from a girl’s speech, let’s call her Sakura:

Hello, I’m Sakura.

What I’m addicted to is making videos.

My current hobby is to acquire singing techniques.

Now, I don’t know about you, but the last time I heard a speech like that was from the android Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. I certainly wouldn’t expect a 13 year old girl from Japan, or any other nation on the planet, to speak about themselves in such a manner. Of course Sakura, could never reproduce that speech spontaneously because it was completely fabricated by a Japanese teaching assistant, and most of the words aren’t even taught at the junior high school level. It was rote memorized.

As soon as you decouple English language learning from the business of handing out Eiken certificates and emphasize simple down-to-Earth communication, the ability of students will grow in a more organic way. No more robots! No more ridiculous English signs and slogans. (Which are often unnecessary anyway!)

What do you think?