L’esprit de l’escalier: A Mancunian in Japan

By Andrew Innes

“Could you try to sound a bit more American?”

They say that a fish in water has no idea what water is. Likewise, we could surely say the same thing about people and accents. We only really become aware that we have one when we find ourselves on dry land. Having lived in Japan for almost twenty years, I’m sure that I’ve unconsciously modified the way I speak to some extent but have always felt it important not to compromise too much. Brows furrow and heads cock to the side if I ask students, “How’s it goin’?”, but shoulders relax and faces are lit up with smiles if I meet them in the middle and ask the more textbook, “How are you?” The phenomenon isn’t even limited to non-native speakers; years ago, a Kiwi colleague was adamant that ‘All right’ didn’t constitute a greeting. I begged to differ.

“If the students want American English, we should give them what they want.”

Personally speaking, I’ve always been terrified that the way I speak might have become watered down and become the butt of jokes upon my return to the UK. I now say soccer instead of football when in class, and the word dinner when I previously said tea as is commonplace in the north of England. Hopefully, that’s about as far as it goes, and it won’t get me raked over the coals or burned at the stake for being a witch the next time I’m back.

“I think that American English is the world standard. That’s what I want to learn.”

In one of my previous incarnations as a foreigner-for-hire, the kids got a sweet after their class. In my own classes at a Buddhist temple in the countryside, I preferred to give them a sticker, but we won’t get into the reasons for eschewing the former. Okay then – bribery through sugar, the slippery slope to harder substances, diminishing returns, a sense of entitlement, shifting the focus from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation, tooth decay.

Permission to have a sweet was contingent upon the young students making the specific request, “May I have a candy?” to which we were to respond, “Yes, you may.” Coming from Manchester where the word may is seen as a little over formal, this grated a bit like a cheese grater grating a sunburnt back. So, sticking to my guns, I got the students to ask, “Can I have a sweet, please?” Although this may be slightly less sunny than the prescribed phrasing, it is possibly due to the fact that the concept of sunshine does not really exist in Manchester. The kids, baffled somewhat that I’d structured the question in a way that deviated from the norm, would nonetheless perk up upon receipt of their treat and go about their day with an extra spring in their step. I don’t think the boss liked me corrupting young minds and smashing the system in such a way, but I saw it as an opportunity to teach them about language diversity and how your environment can shape the language you use. That was my excuse anyway.

“American English is easy to understand.”

We often hear words like diversity and inclusion these days. Who doesn’t want to get on board with that? Yet, many teaching materials still seem premised on the notion that English is spoken the same the world over. Exposing English learners to the myriad ways that it is used can only be a good thing, even if it does cause a degree of confusion. Of course, it would simplify things if we all used the same accent, words, and pronunciation, and there were no such things as dialects. But unfortunately, that isn’t the way things work in the real world.

The message being sent out to English learners is that there exists a standard, correct way of speaking, and deviating from it is to be avoided. Taken to the extreme, this can result in being delegitimized or falling into the category of ‘non-standard’. We only need to go as far back as the Oakland School Board controversy of 1996 to see how important it is to rail against those who would have you standardise your speech. As the Yiddish scholar, Max Weinreich overheard an audience member at one of his lectures puts it, “A language is a dialect with an army and navy.” Put another way, that which is considered the norm is merely that which is legitimized by the powerful group in society.

“So go on then. How can I sound more American?”

“Well, I’m not sure. American English?”

“Okay, but which American English in particular? New York? Boston? DC? A Texan drawl, perhaps? Besides, I’m not sure I’d be able to nail the alveolar flap, which turns butter into budder. Or the retroflex approximant, which produces that strong rhotic R out of thin eə(r). But then again, surely that wouldn’t apply if I were using a New York or Boston accent, would it? You’d need to be more specific. And what about herbs? Would I have to say ‘erbs, or could I have my ‘erbs with a side order of h? Could I say that I’d just come back from a holiday on the continent? Or would I have to employ the glottal stop to say that I’d just vacationed on the ‘kɑ:nʔɪnənt’? And then we get into vocabulary. Of course, I could remember to say that I’d seen a guy jaywalking from one sidewalk to another, but I might forget to add that he’d been wearing pants and let slip that he’d had on a pair of trousers. You see, it really is a minefield.”

“Now you’re just being facetious.”

As I`m sure you can probably guess by now. No such conversation has ever taken place during my time here. If it had, it would probably have gone something a bit less like the above, and a little bit more like this:

“Why don`t you try to sound a bit more American?”

“Hmm.”

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, it is the spirit of the staircase. It is that moment when you are walking out of the party, down the stairs, and the witty riposte finally comes to you. Perhaps the moral of the story is that sometimes, it’s best to appease those around you by appearing to give them what they want. That way, you get to stay true to yourself, and they get that lovely feeling of self-satisfaction they’re after — no matter how hollow their victory might be.