Tag Archives: Multilingualism

A rose by any other name?? / 始めを振り返って

So now that I’ve written around 10 articles specifically on language, I’m starting to feel better about writing in both languages. I’ve confirmed that there’s definitely some aspect of my cognitive process that’s driven by the language I’m using.

At first, I felt more comfortable writing in English because I had a nagging awkward feeling while writing about the same things in Japanese.  I had thought that this was because English is now my dominant language, but that doesn’t quite explain the writer’s block I get in Japanese. What I’ve come to realize is that the root of the awkward feeling is my perception of taboos in Japanese culture.  In fact, there was at least one entry I didn’t finish because I freaked myself out.  It was about an unpleasant encounter with a jerk, and I had no problem ranting about it in English when I knew it could potentially be public. When I sat down to write in Japanese, “NO, NO, NO”, my brain kept saying.  “You’ll be slaughtered, crushed!”, my brain said.  I mean, who’s really going to come after me because I complained about one jerk? Somehow, an insane fear to overexpose my feelings came over me.  I couldn’t even write a full paragraph in Japanese even though I had written about it in English minutes before.

Is it cultural?  Yes, certainly.  Is it driven by the language?  YUP.  Same topic, same person, same timing, but while I had a cohesive thought in one language, I couldn’t keep it together in another.

Japanese did not allow me to write in an expressive way without sounding like a totally crazy jerk myself while English allowed me to be a silly jerk.

I’ve noticed that in other random Japanese blogs I’ve read.  I can’t say I’ve read too many, but here’s the impression I got. You have to be either super pleasant, or sound like a total judgmental scumbag.  I just find it hard to believe that these super pleasant people exist in real life.  Their blog is a pleasant image they present, but not the actual person. Yeah, I’m a suspicious New Yorker, so what? Everyone sounds good on their resume, but how often were you surprised when people showed up for an interview?

What was even more surprising was the fear I felt. Ranting about an event in English, I knew I sounded like somewhat of a jerk, but I wasn’t that concerned.  I started writing in Japanese and I was shaking in my boots from fear that a group of Japanese men in suits were gonna show up in my bedroom and silently crush me to death.  Really, I felt like I was messing with taboo and karma.  The event really wasn’t that deep, but the fact that I tried to write about it in Japanese was somehow a taboo.

I also had the same stomach wrenching feeling when I wrote about my family. All I did was give some linguistic background (if you can even call it that for a three year old) but it was terribly difficult to write about my own kids in Japanese.  In fact, I think it took me more than double the time to write the same post in Japanese.  I was writing some private things, exposing my family to the public eye, I even used their names!  I finished it, because it was crucial I have that information as part of this blog, but it was a huge struggle.  I couldn’t even decide if I should use my children’s names in the post.  Is it too much?  Should I use initials?  Should I share the Chinese characters?  Should I mention their age?  Will the men in suits take them away if I do this?  Marc and I thought long and hard about our children’s names and we are proud of them, but I felt ashamed to mention them in a Japanese blog. I felt like I would be judged that “Mila” wasn’t a typical “good” Japanese name.  None of this ever even occurred to me until I was writing in Japanese.  Such a strange sense of resistance to sharing basic, basic information.

In retrospect, the two taboos that worked against me regarding names are these:

One is comfort in anonymity. Japan is a country known for its uniformity, and for a long time, it was indeed true. Not standing out was usually considered a good sign. There is a saying in Japanese, 「出る杭はうたれる」 or “A nail that sticks out will be beaten down”.  This was an accurate description of what would happen to you if you were to have your own opinion that diverged too much from the public’s.  Anonymity was your only protection from being put into your place.  Exposing my children’s names takes that anonymity away from them.  This blog has a lot of my personal opinion, some may agree and some may not.  Even though that’s OK with me and I’m open to other opinions, I’m afraid of the cultural beat down that I could receive from a Japanese audience.

The other taboo is the social stigma of not having a “normal” name.  DQN names, and the criticism of them, have become a social phenomenon in Japan.  A DQN name is a name that is designed to stand out, a name that is difficult to read.  A name that sounds foreign is sometimes also included in this category.  The most well-known American DQN name would be Pilot “Standard” Inspektor, son of Jason Lee.  There are many online discussion forums on this topic in Japan and people are quite obsessed with making sure their child does not have a DQN name.  “Nina” is a fairly “normal” Japanese name, as well as English, Spanish, Russian, and several other languages.  This was one of the reasons we chose it.  “Mila”, on the other hand, is a perfectly good name in English, Hindi, Russian, and several other languages, but not quite a traditional Japanese name. “Mila” can be pronounced in most languages, which was also important to us, and the pronunciation is perfectly acceptable in Japanese.  However, her Chinese characters, “実良”, which mean “good harvest” (since she was born in autumn), are a bit different.  There are not many Chinese characters that can be read as “la.” For “la”, we used the character “良”, which is not typically read that way.  The normal way to read that character is “ryo.” Here’s where it gets complicated.  There are many  many cases in Japanese where Chinese characters are read differently just for names.  For example, the character for the number nine, “九”, is generally pronounced “kyuu”, or “ku”, but in very rare cases, it can be used in a name and read “hisashi.”  Also, the Japanese family registry where you register your child’s name allows you to register any Chinese character with whatever name pronunciation you want.  It allows for all kinds of funny names.  Anyways, the character “良” has been used in last names as “la” in some cases.  I happen to have a childhood friend whose last name was “平良” and read “Taira (la)”. So for me, using that letter came pretty naturally.  But for many others, it could be an illegible DQN name.  In fact, sometimes, I’ve had people ask me to clarify how to read her name.  Having a confusing name can lead to criticism of the parent’s intelligence, personality, credibility…until there is no humanity left.  Again, her name is not half as weird as Pilot Inspektor, but in Japan, diverging from the norm can come with great backlash.  DQN names have become a cultural pet peeve for many, but the point at which someone starts to qualify a name as a DQN name is pretty different from person to person.  Since I couldn’t gauge the reaction to my child’s name, I was afraid to put it out there.  Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the name “Mila”.  Marc and I spent months thinking about it, and we decided on the name with love and confidence.  However, there’s still fear associated with the potential unreasonable allergic reaction.

There are many more taboos in Japanese culture than in American culture, and language is an effective implementation tool of that culture. Japan is a strong culture of the royal “We”, a culture of “You are one of us or you are not worthy”.  Worthy of what?  I don’t know.  Who’s the “us”? I don’t know.  I suddenly understood why it was so difficult for Japanese people to simply say “No”.  YOU WILL BE ASSIMILATED if you use our language correctly.

Speaking in Japanese, I don’t really feel this way, but when I sit down to write, expressing anything about my private life or a simple perspective is so difficult.

My children, on the other hand, may learn Japanese, but will not likely be exposed to the culture the language is associated with as much as I was having two Japanese parents from Japan.  So my current hypothesis is that even if my children speak Japanese, they will not have enough cultural ties with the language for it to affect how they think.  We’ll see if this is actually true….in about 20 years or so.





もう一つは今の日本でのDQNネームに対する考えかな。日本に住んでいない私でさえ知っている、DQN ネーム、まるで社会現象みたいに増えていて、しかもそれに対する大勢の人達のリアクションが恐ろしい。新菜は結構普通の日本名でもあるんだけど、実良は当て字なんですよね。私は小さい頃の友人にタイラさん、という子がいて、彼女の名字が平良だったので、私の中で”良”は”ら”って人名では使える字だと思ってたんですが、それって、一般常識ではないんですよね。つまり、漢字では、読みにくい名前の部類に入っちゃう。私達は、名前を着けるとき、どの国でも発音しやすい名前、漢字をちゃんと考える事、季節関係の名前にしたい、と考えていたので、新菜は冬産まれなので”新春”との意味をこめて、実良は秋生まれなので”良い実り、充実”と言った意味を込めてつけたんですが、当て字なのと、ミラというのが余り日本での典型な名前でない事は事実で、そこのところを突っ込まれそうだな、と。別に突っ込まれるのはまだしも、オンラインで何か言われるのはやだな~、と。ちなみにNinaは英語だけではなくて、スペイン語、またはロシア語、等でも名前としてあるし、Milaもヒンズー系、ロシア系とその他色々でもある名前です。マークも私も名前としては、両方ともとても気にいってるんですが、どの程度をとって、DQNネームというのかというのがはっきりとした定義がない以上、しかも日本の今の風潮として、DQNネームを付ける親は毒親、と言われる中、自分たちもそれにされてしまうのか、という恐怖感は英語で書いている時には思いもしなかったのに、日本語で改めて子供の名前を書く時には、色々と考え込んでしまった。考えかた自体が完全に言語に左右されてたんですね。




My Brood/四人家族

There are four confused language speakers in my family.

Me: I’ve already given my short bio in the beginning, so I won’t bore with another.  One thing to add is that I suck at learning languages.  In 6th grade, I was required to take French when my English was still at an off-the-boat-level.  Well, it showed. My French grade dragged at the bottom of the class throughout high school and I dare not mention I even studied it. You’d think going through years of English boot camp would prepare me to learn a new language.  It did not.
Now, I’m very sheepishly attempting to learn Mandarin and it’s just as sad as when I was in French class. Yes, I should put more effort into using it and expose myself to more Mandarin since it’s available.  I realized I try to learn a language in the worst way possible.  I look at the characters (since Chinese and Japanese share a lot of characters), match the pronunciation, and make flash cards.  Oh, it’s bad.  I am that example of a Japanese middle school student.  I know what I’m doing is wrong, but I don’t know how to amend and do it right.  Well, if I make any progress on this depressing endeavor, I will update.
My English: “Native”, or what I call bitching level.  When you can bitch about your work/life effectively with a group of people and blend in at a bar, you’re fluent.  Some professional level speech, some cursing, some slang, all fused into smooth conversation.  You’re a native and not a business speaker.
My Japanese: I’m still trying to determine where it is.  In conventional terms, I’m a “Native Speaker.”  I’ve worked for a bit in a Japanese business environment, I can read a newspaper, I can have casual and loud conversations with a group of mommies at lunch.  I find my Japanese writing  to be either too formal or too casual, but not quite as frank as my English.  I haven’t found my “voice” when writing in Japanese.  I don’t have that problem with English. I’m a sarcastic, unorganized writer, as I am in person. I’m finding it hard to portray that persona in Japanese. It’s easier for me to hide behind the formality of Japanese writing.
So I don’t know where that stands. Is it the Japanese language that forces me to write in such a manner? Maybe.

Marc: He gets the best hubby and daddy award. He only speaks English fluently, but has some working knowledge of Japanese, French and Latin, in that order. I’m not sure if you can even have a “working knowledge” of Latin, but fair to say he studied some and enjoyed it. He has a knack for learning languages unlike me.

Nina: My almost-3-year-old, still in her semi-demonic stage, but other than the occasional exorcism moment, she’s a good kid. She’s sensitive, sweet, shy, funny and loud all at the same time. She goes to a day care with a bilingual (English and Mandarin) education program full day, 5 days a week and LOVES it. Even asks about her “school” when we are on vacation. We try to do the bilingual household thing where I speak mostly in Japanese and my husband speaks ‘American’ English. But since he understands some Japanese, he reads her books in Japanese. I’m used to using English and I often to end up slipping back into it even when speaking with her, but I’m working on that.
Nina’s English=Singlish. I don’t know if that’s the politically correct term, but her accent is definitely not American, and sometimes, she’s got that “la” thing on the back of her sentences. Her English is generally good. Grammar is still developing, but that’s age appropriate.
Nina’s Mandarin: Mystery. She understands, but doesn’t speak much. When she’s on the spot, apparently she does say something, but it’s limited and we don’t quite know where it’s headed. She was like that a few months ago with Japanese, but she has more exposure during the day to Mandarin, so we’ll see what she picks up. The challenge is also that I don’t quite recognize Chinese coming from her since I’m unfamiliar with it myself. She has also already decided that I’m not a Chinese speaker and adamantly refuses to speak Chinese with me, even if I try.
Nina’s Japanese: Starting to flourish. It helps that my friend introduced me to a really cool program called Douwakan. A children’s book shop owner and some of his associates have devoted time to selecting age appropriate books for children and they can send up to 3 books a month addressed to your child. It’s a bit pricey from abroad (Non-Japan), but I like the books they deliver and Nina looks forward to receiving her monthly gift. I firmly believe that the only reason I was able to keep up my Japanese was because I read a lot of Japanese books growing up, so early exposures to good books for the children is extremely important to me. She has an accent of some sort, can’t quite pinpoint which one it is, between the American and Filipino Japanese accent we have in the house, she’s a bit confused. Both my husband and our helper speak some levels of Japanese and they often speak it with her. I think she’s on the right track, she recognizes those that are Japanese speakers and gravitates towards them.
Nina’s 4th language: Gobbledygook. Nina has another language she speaks or yells, when she’s hyper. Probably a kid thing, but figured I’d include it. Maybe it’s her partial Mandarin, she’s happy when we repeat it, whatever it is.

Mila: She’s our baby. I go easy on her. Not to worry Nina, that will change. She’s just started to walk and she’s facing the challenges of life (i.e. her older sister) and thriving every day. She’s starting to respond to several languages and we are excited to see how her linguistic skills develop.

英語:これはもう一言で言うとネイティブスピーカー。私風に言うと、Bitching Level。つまり仕事・普段の文句をうるっさいバーとかで、愚痴って普通にブレンド出来るレベル。専門職語とグチと普段のだらだらを完全にミックスして喋れる事が条件。ビジネスだけの会話以外でも何でも違和感なくふるまえるレベル。書いていても、違和感なく、TPOに合わせられる。









How do I start a blog? Or decide to start a blog? I’m not someone with a very concrete purpose, I’m not a super mommy, I’m not a great chef, particularly crafty, nor am I a great writer. I don’t have a concrete theme that I will dedicate my blog to. So I’ll call this an experiment and a place to track my random thoughts with some focus on languages.

My friend I saw the other day said something interesting, paraphrasing it, she said, “I believe the language you speak drives how you think as a person”…maybe it’s not what she said, but that’s what I heard. So this is where my whole experimental idea comes from. I’m a “third culture kid” I was born in Japan, but moved to the United States when I was 8. My parents were very culturally Japanese in some sense and yet very progressive. I went through the American education system, went to a US university, worked in New York for close to 10 years, and then moved to Singapore 2 years ago. People who know me would typically describe me as being very American, but there are some aspects of my core that are strangely Japanese. I wondered, after hearing my friend, if this core is from the fact that the Japanese language came first for me and English second. Although if you ask me now, I would consider English as my prominent language, I wonder what there is to that first language that determines your cognitive process. My situation is not unique, but I wanted to document my thought process in both languages to see if I can figure out the dualities in me. I’ve also never written both in Japanese and in English, so I thought it may be interesting to those that are studying either language, or are coming from similar backgrounds, or raising children in a similar situations as I am.

The other reason to start this blog is following my children’s developments. My daughters are half Japanese, quarter Vietnamese and quarter American (Caucasian originally from the UK area) growing up in Singapore. My older daughter Nina, is almost 3, born in New York and moved to Singapore when she was 8 months old. She is now learning English (being exposed to both Singaporean English and American English), Japanese and Mandarin.
My younger daughter Mila was born in Singapore and recently turned 1. Clearly, she is not speaking yet, but she is reacting to certain words in Japanese and English.

I don’t have any background in psychology, language studies, or anything of that level, so this blog will most likely remain a personal rant with very limited sample groups, mainly my personal experience and struggles raising children in a mixed cultural background. Is that interesting to anyone? Maybe not. I know a couple of moms that may be interested, so why not put it out there?
So here’s a start, of a potentially short journey, or a long one. Who knows?