There is an old English joke about a shepherd and his talking dog.

In the long weeks of solitude on the sheep pastures of the north of England, a shepherd out of boredom taught his dog to speak. A theatrical impresario heard of this and succeeded in getting the shepherd on to the stage with the dog, the two of them holding a conversation in front of everyone. The performances were a great success, and at the end of the tour the press interviewed the shepherd and asked what he thought. “Well, the money’s good,” he replied, “but I can’t think why they all come to hear him talk. It’s not as though he ever said anything interesting! ”

We foreigners who can speak a bit of Japanese are rather like talking dogs. Far from having anything interesting to say, if we can say anything at all in Japanese we are showered with praises. But of course the other party has to be quite certain that we are speaking Japanese, and we are not always so lucky. If I go to a country like Italy or India, and speak a little of their language to the people there, probably they do not understand me at first; but both sides try with good humour to hold the conversation, and in the end something comes through. But Japan has quite different complexities. Even though I may know a good deal of Japanese, and the other party a good deal of English, if this Japanese is not used to the idea that a foreigner may be able to speak Japanese, he or she may find it impossible to adjust to the situation.

Let me give an example. When the Japanese at a reception desk in a company see a foreigner coming up, a tremendous tension builds up in them. They know of course that the conversation will have to be in English. Perhaps they have been practising English conversation with the help of records and tapes, but very likely they have never had the experience of actually talking to a foreigner face to face. But they have got some idea of what is likely, or believed by Japanese to be likely, to happen. It is something like this.

Foreigner :  Wahs prezdun?

Japanese :  Excuse me …

Foreigner :  Wahs prezdun ?

Japanese: Foreigner:

I am sorry I do not understand … (slowly) You …. speak … English … huh?

Japanese :  Yes I do, but…

Foreigner:    Well then, WAHS PREZDUN?

And only after long and humiliating consultations with tittering colleagues, and much riffling of dictionary pages, does it turn out that the foreigner has an appointment with the President of the company and is asking, in his curious accent, where he will find him.

Most of us who have any pretensions at Japanese try to avoid this sort of embarrassing situation, and so when I enter the company and walk is with long steps (I am a tall man) up to the reception desk, I have in my head some prepared Japanese sentences. But as I approach them, one of the three girls there suddenly begins to rummage in the shelves below the counter, looking for something she will not find till I have gone. The two remaining girls huddle together for protection. Then I bring out in my Japanese: “Is President Hasegawa in? I have an appointment with him at ten o’clock” (Hasegawa Shacho wa irasshaimasu ka? Watashi wa ju-ji ni o-me ni kakaru yakusoku desu).

Dead silence. Even the shelf-rummager stops for a moment. The girls’ worst fears are realized: the foreigner’s English is totally incomprehensible. One of them falters out, “Excuse me….” I repeat my Japanese sentence, adding the information that my name is Leggett (Watashi no namae wa Regetto desu). The girl’s inner record player goes on unaffected, “I am sorry I do not understand.”

Now I say slowly in Japanese, “You… speak … Japanese … don’t you? ” (Anata wa … Nihon- go wo … hanasemasu ne)

She still continues in English, “Yes I do but…” At this point my usual tactic is to point to a magazine which one of the girls has been reading. I say, “Shukan Gendai is an interesting magazine, isn’t it—what’s that article there on bringing up children?” still all in Japanese. As if hypnotized, her eyes turn slowly to the magazine, and she sees that there is indeed an article on how to bring up children. Her amazement at finding that this is not merely a talking dog but a reading dog too almost overcomes her, but she battles on with her English, “You can read Japanese!”

It is about now that the President’s secretary appears. Anticipating some confusion, he has sent her down to meet me. She knows that I have some claim to speak Japanese so she greets me in that language, but as it is also essential for her to show off her own English, she tells me in English that President Hasegawa is expecting me. I answer her Japanese sentences in English, and the English ones in Japanese.

Most of us Japanese “experts” are familiar with this humiliating experience. It is worst of all when we are guiding a newly-arrived friend from  the home country, and to impress him we address a question to some passer-by in rapid (and quite often grammatically correct) Japanese, only to be met with blank incomprehension and a few words of broken English.

 However I have occasionally managed to turn the tables. In Kyoto a couple of cheeky students approached me to try out their English:

Students: Hullo Mister, do you like Kyoto?

Me: Sumimasen ga, Nihongo wa hanasemasen.

 (Sorry, I don’t speak Japanese)

Students’, Eh? (recovering themselves) Hullo Mister, do you like Kyoto?

Me: Watashi wa Nihongo ga wakarimasen. (I don’t understand Japanese.)

 Students:  (consternation, whispers of “ why does he say that?” etc.) HULLO MISTER, DO YOU LIKE KYOTO?

Me :      (top speed) Hottoite kuremasen ka ne. Ma, anata gata ga eki no soba ni tsukutta oki na to nante kini iranai, to demo yubeki desho. Mattaku nani mo iwanai de oku yori wa. Ke- redomo, watashi ga Nihon go wa hanase nai to kurikaeshi te itte iru noni, nan no tame ni watashi ni shitsumon wo shinakereba naranai no desuka? (You keep on at it, don’t you . . . Well I must say I don’t like that tower you’ve built right by the station, quite out of place I should say; anyway I keep telling you I can’t speak Japanese so why do you keep on asking me?)

Students’, (at last realizing they have been had) Ya-a-a-ah !

Me: Bow-wow!

The talking dog has bitten them.

I did have one extraordinary experience, on slightly different lines, well over twenty years ago when English-language studies were only beginning to recover after the war. I was to visit a town where my train arrived at ten in the evening. I had to meet the president of a company in the morning, and he had reserved a hotel for me, also sending his private .secretary to meet my train and guide me there. This was a bright young man in his early twenties. As I got off the train he came up and shaking me warmly by the hand greeted me in somewhat slurred English, “ H’llo, M’ser Laggett, ver’ pleas’ meetyer.” I realized that he was a little drunk; waiting for trains is always boring, and I certainly did not blame him for having had a drink or two. As I listened to his loud voice, I thought to myself that when sober he must have a pretty good command of English.

 Then he suddenly said in Japanese, “I hear that you speak Japanese, Mr. Leggett”, to which I naturally replied in Japanese and we talked for a little while. The amazing thing was that when he talked Japanese he was perfectly sober, his is voice quiet, and all the syllables pronounced perfectly. But when we reverted to English, he was drunk again.

I asked him where he had learned English, and he told me that he had studied from books, but had found an American soldier to give him lessons in conversation. I realized that that teacher must have been drunk most of the time, and the Japanese pupil, believing that this was the proper way to speak English, had faithfully imitated it.

I didn’t laugh at him. As a matter of fact I admired him: he had taken the only model available to him, and faithfully followed it.

But I could not leave it there. It would have been cruel to smile inwardly and pass on. I had to find some tactful way of making him reconsider his way of talking, so I explained to him that there are many ways of speaking English. The Welsh people almost sing the words, as in the South of France there are some areas where the people speak French in a kind of singsong. London people in general speak quite quietly without much inflection of the voice, but the Cockney (like the Edokko) has a sharp delivery and bites off his words. Among Irish people there are some who speak in a rather extravagant way, and this is sometimes found in America where so many Irish emigrated.

“Your teacher was an American, and very likely he was of Irish descent. But unless one is born to it, one can’t do these things naturally. I am a Londoner, and if I were to imitate an Irishman, it would always sound unnatural. Wouldn’t it be an idea if you sometimes tried talking your English like you do Japanese, in a rather quiet way? Then I think probably it would express your real character well.”

We talking dogs reflect pretty faithfully the shepherd who first taught us to speak. There are quite a lot of us who learnt Japanese first from a woman, and sometimes for years and years we go on saying “Daijobu desu wa Japanese people are as a rule too polite to correct this for us. But wouldn’t it really be kinder to correct it? Sometimes one finds out the mistake, perhaps from a foreigner with more experience. And then we think back, how over the months and years we have been using these comical turns of phrase and how Japanese people must have been laughing at us inwardly. Among our friends, there was not one who would tell us, and we feel that perhaps those friends were no real friends.

I learnt Japanese first of all in Tokyo, from the students in Judo dojos. I imitated them, and thought that “detetchau” was standard Japanese for “I’m going out”, and “cha aru?” for “is there any tea?” I also sometimes used the “2a- 2o masu” which some Tokyo women used for “go- zaimasu”. Then one day one of the Judo seniors said to me, “ This kind of word, and this, and this, are perhaps all right coming from a Japanese, but for you to say it sounds wrong. Wouldn’t it be  better for you to keep to standard Japanese?” At first I was taken aback : I thought resentfully, “I am saying what they say, and they are Japanese ! ” But soon afterwards I felt tremendously grateful to him, and I always follow his advice to avoid slang—when I realize that it is slang, of course. But no doubt there are comical colloquialisms even today coming out of my mouth, which I believe are standard Japanese, and which everyone is too polite to tell me about.

When I first began talking Japanese in the Judo dojo, I would often look up the words I wanted in a little dictionary, and then use them. I had done a little bit of grammar but I did not pay much attention to it. I used to think that listening to the others speak would make me pick up the grammar, and that would be the best way.

I was soon able to chatter away with my friends, and when they talked to me (though not when they talked among themselves) I could follow everything they said. One day the head of the Judo section came round and had a talk with them. He seemed to be a bit annoyed with them and was obviously telling them off, but as usual I could not understand when one Japanese was talking to others. After he had gone I asked about it, and at first they did not want to tell me, but in the end it came out that he had been scolding them for talking broken Japanese at me. In my own Japanese I generally omitted (because I did not know about) the te-ni-wo-ha particles. I just used to say, “Kimi cha nomi kimasu?” They used to reply in the same style “ Issho iki- masho ”. This was why I could understand perfectly when they talked to me, but not when they talked to each other—they were using special Japanese for me. The Judo teacher had been annoyed because they were simply confirming my broken Japanese by imitating it. “If you don’t sometimes correct his mistakes, he will never learn proper Japanese. You talk broken Japanese to him yourselves because you think it will be easier for him to understand. Instead of you teaching him proper Japanese, you are learning broken Japanese from him! ”

© Trevor Leggett

This was taken from Trevor Leggett’s book “The British and the Japanese” published in 1976


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