Today’s blog post is going to be a personal reflection, of course, colored by my position as a professional in the field of applied linguistics. This reflection has been kicked off by some experiences that I had while taking a short vacation with my husband a few weeks ago.
Allow me to begin by setting the scene. For those that don’t recall, my husband is a Chinese national that is living and working in the United States; while I am a U.S. national that is living and working in China. Recently, he decided to come to China to visit with his family in southwestern China. After that, he stopped by Shanghai for a few days so that we could go to Shanghai Disney; I could show him the city; and, of course, I could make him suffer through coming to work with me for a day. Afterwards, we headed off to Tokyo for a few days of exploring and experiencing someplace new. It was an exciting time, as neither of us had ever really been…a bit sad considering that I spent six years of my university experiences studying Japanese and designing research projects that either looked at Japanese ESL student writing, or that looked at JFL teaching methods. While we were in Japan, we decided it would be best if we had defined roles—to prevent any bickering. So, he was the navigator (since the maps want to load on his phone), and I was the communicator (since we hoped that some of the dormant Japanese would resurface). It was in this role as the communicator that some of what I talk about theoretically as an applied linguist really, truly came to life for me.
Language Attrition & Cognition
I have to admit that I was a bit shocked by just how much Japanese I have lost over the years. Or, more appropriately just how much has been replaced by Chinese. So many things that used to be automatic in Japanese I had to struggle to access. For example, we went to one restaurant, and the waitress asked us in Japanese how many people we had. I used to be able to respond to that without thinking, using the proper numeral form as well. Automatically, Liǎng wèi came out. This caused confusion each time it happened—whether it was asking for prices or just saying thanks. The automaticity of many of these phrases had switched to Chinese.
Which got me thinking about how linguistic, cognitive networks come into play as we navigate our ecosocial spaces. I was most certainly consciously aware that I was in a place that not an English dominant country. In my mind, I was hyperaware of the need to perform in a language other than English. However, when under pressure to perform, the cognitive machinery switched over to the most accessible non-English language meet this contextual need. It just happened to be the wrong one far too often. An interesting quirk that I noticed, even when I was hobbling together some Japanese and English when talking with people, like when I was trying to talk to a kid about how to find the nearest subway, the filler phrase was almost always zěnme shuō (how do you say in Mandarin).
For us to successfully navigate our short stay in Tokyo, I also had to make use of some extended cognitive affordances to make up for my lack of linguistic ability. This need was heightened by the fact that my spouse had a knack for picking places to eat that were not targeted at foreigners, which was great because we ate at a lot of restaurants that were popular with Tokyo denizens. So, for me to discharge my job as the communicator, I needed a few things. I needed my handy dandy phrasebook app, and I needed access to Google Translate. It was also super helpful when I had a patient and willing interlocutor, which seemed to be most people we engaged with. Using these three things, we managed quite well, much better than if we had just pointed and grunted. But, even with being able to use extended cognitive affordances (the apps and the internet) it was a cognitively and socially demanding task to not appear to be the rude foreigner. Something that was made even more complicated by the differing social scripts.
Social Scripts: Governing How to Behave
If you ever want to be reminded of the role that social scripts play in governing interaction, and social behavior just take public transportation wherever you are. My spouse and I got slapped in the face with this when we first started taking the metro in Tokyo. We were tired and on stimulus overload because of all the newness around us. The first couple of times walking through the subway stations and getting onto the trains, we were very much being driven by our dominant “public transit social scripts.” That is to say; we were doing things like we would in China. So, queueing is only really a thing until the doors open. Then it’s a rather free flow of people in and out of the trains. Also, when navigating the subway, it’s about moving quickly to get to your exit. This may mean weaving in and out the crowd.
We applied this social script when we first landed in Japan, which may have got us a few odd looks. This is because in Tokyo you, largely, wait until people have disembarked before you move your way onto the train. Also, you stay in your lane as you walk through the subway…in most places, this means staying to the right. Eventually, we got the hang of it. But, if we were overly tired, we defaulted back to the Chinese social script.
This got us thinking about how these social scripts might have emerged. For example, in post-WWII China, there was the cultural revolution, food shortages, and significant rationing. Some cultural anthropologists have posited that this means the social script for queueing in China is one where you must rush to get a limited supply. Japan received significantly more support from other nations during its post-war reconstruction, which helped alleviate some of these concerns. Certainly, there are other cultural forces driving these differences, but my spouse and I found this to be an interesting thing to consider.
Some Final “Fun” Bits
- It was exciting being in Japan where people actually know that my wrist tatoo says “Ganbare” and not just a string of random Chinese characters. The airport security guy was like, “AY! Ganbare! Good tattoo”. While my students are often like, “Um. You know that doesn’t mean anything, right?”
- It was fun “messing” with people in China. My spouse is Chinese and when we would go out together service staff would often turn to him, expecting him to order or to pay…or just to communicate. They were a bit thrown when I was doing it.
- Sideways glances. My spouse got a few glances while we were in China. We were at Disney and I wanted to get my “Magical Passport” Stamped. So, I would be going up to workers asking them where I could get it stamped. I would be using very simple (and poor) Chinese while my spouse was standing right next to me. A few times the person looked at him imploringly, as if saying “Dude, his Chinese is so bad. Help him! Help me!”