The Language Dance

By Michael Pronko

Tokyo is a city where one can go for weeks without needing to converse with anyone. You can silently order, pay the bill, use an IC or credit card to slip in and out of stations, and get by at work or shopping with set polite phrases that involve no real thought. But Tokyo is also a city of conversations. There are so many people so close that conversations always lie waiting whenever you want them.

As a foreigner in Tokyo, though, finding a language to converse in can be as confusing as interpreting the dance of a honeybee. In which linguistic direction should we fly? As an obvious English-speaking-looking person, I am constantly placed in the position of deciding what language to engage in.

I always start to talk with people in Japanese, but some of them, it occasionally turns out, speak better English than I speak Japanese. Before I can find that out, though, we have to perform the ritual language dance.

The ritual goes like this: I comment in Japanese about the weather; then, a few questions are asked about where I’m from and why I’m here; gradually, the other person will insert a word or two in English to kind of test the waters; and finally, if I catch the hint and ask a question in English—Presto! We switch around and enter an English conversation!

Or, non-presto, they nod politely and we remain in Japanese. It can take several polite rounds before we settle on one or the other, depending on our relative language levels, relative pride, or relative fatigue. At times, it feels like a pleasant decision, like choosing either chocolate or vanilla, or both, but at other times, it feels like two sumo wrestlers grappling for the strongest hold.

This ritual is much more sophisticated than years ago, when English conversations mainly involved red-faced salarymen stammering drunk about my skill with chopsticks in a smoky bar. In those days, though, too, random strangers on trains and high school kids on school trips to Kyoto, would try out their eikawa lessons on me, following the textbook patterns precisely. They treated me like a practice session.

Recently, though, people interact more naturally in both languages. They seem less afraid of conversations with foreigners–double strangers. The new-style English conversations are a sign Tokyoite’s English is getting better, and their cultural fearlessness is gaining hold.

Sometimes surprisingly so! Calling my local city office to arrange for a sodai gomi pickup last summer, the woman had to know the exact type of water heater and the exact kind of bookshelf to know how much to charge me for pickup and disposal. Though I speak Japanese passably enough, I stammered finding the right vocabulary to discuss the complexities of disassembling and setting out the used furniture in my house.

After a bit of stumbling around, the woman at the call center impatiently switched into fluent English. An English conversation about trash was a first for me. She skipped the dance and charged straight into English to get things done. It was a cultural dance, too, switching over to the American let’s-just-get-this-done mode.

Part of the problem is that my presence always provokes a conversation about English, even when no English gets spoken. Slipping into a chair at the counter of a craft beer bar at the start of the summer, the voices of a middle-aged couple next to me lowered as I ordered a pint. They stole furtive glances at me. Then, I heard them whisper to each other sotto voce that wasn’t so sotto, “Eigo zenzen dekinai!” “I can’t speak English at all.”

But I’m sure the woman at the counter next to me who denied being able to speak English could in fact order a beer in New York City if she had to. She felt provoked, obligated maybe, to discuss my language, as if I couldn’t understand hers. But she did not want to lean over for the ritual dance. Fair enough. But in her mind, I could tell, she was doing the language dance on her own.

Other times, though, it’s entirely the opposite. One off-duty tour guide (it turned out) next to me at a counter one evening spoke to me in Japanese for quite a while about sake, Japanese food, and politics before dispensing with the ritual and switching suddenly to flawless English. But he was the dance-less exception, and one with a sense of humor my lapses in Japanese no doubt amused.

At the start of the dance, it’s always hard to gauge if someone really can’t speak English, in which case my forcing them into English would embarrass them, or if they are just being humble, in which case they actually want to speak English but hesitate in case I want to speak Japanese. They also want to be polite and not embarrass me, too, in case my Japanese is not up to it.

So, we have to dance around a bit figuring out which language will best manage what we both want without imposing too much on the other. All of that happens in a few conversational turns, so I try to pay attention where the dance is headed.

Because conversations with strangers in Japanese tend to be less personal and more informational, taxi drivers explaining their working conditions or someone in a bar talk about similar bars, I like it best when English helps us break out of the formal patterns and polite language, and lets the conversation fall into fresh exchanges. Japanese can really loosen up in English.

After switching not just language, but cultural assumptions, body language, and mindsets, they tell me more, in English, about themselves and their life than they ever would in Japanese. What emerges then in the ensuing conversation is something like: “I lived in Africa when I was young,” or, “I worked in a restaurant in London for ten years.” I get a whole story, not just a conversation. English is central to the direction of their life, so the language reveals more than just their vocabulary score. It gives me their life story.

On the train from time to time, I like to peek over at lone uniformed students prepping for an English exam. With great concentration, the student will move a red plastic sheet off and on their study list to hide and show the answers below. During the inevitable pause to cram a word or pattern into their long-term memory, the bedraggled student will look up, startled to see a real, live English speaker right beside them, as if magically conjured from the pages of the book.

I often give them my teacher’s glare that says, “Study hard.” But if they are standing close enough, I like to whisper a friendly “Ganbatte!” “Go for it!” The student, usually a girl, since boys do not want to appear uncool by studying in public, will blush as red as the plastic sheet that hides the answers below, and mumble, “Yes, I will, thank you,” even if the words don’t come out as anything more than a polite, silent bow.

Still unsure how to pull the words off the page and let them live, the language dance is still a ways off. But I know that after a few more years of study, she’ll be engaging in the language dance, too, whichever direction in life her language study leads her.