The thing about living in a foreign country where you don’t really speak the same language as everyone else is that you end up speaking your own language with people who don’t really speak your language.
Let’s unpack that.
You know how the way you speak is influenced by the people you hang out with?
Imagine that your new coworker always responds to “Good morning” with “Yep, the morning of mornings!”
The first time, you note that it’s an interesting response. When he does it consistently, you think, hmm, that’s kind of annoying. But after working together for about a month, you find that you have adopted the phrase into your daily vocabulary.
And it doesn’t stop with “morning of mornings.” You take that idea and run with it. When your boyfriend welcomes you home with “How was work today?” you answer, “It was the workday of workdays!”
You didn’t used to talk like that. You don’t even know what that means, but you can’t stop yourself from saying it. You’ve heard that sentence structure everyday for 6 weeks. It’s a habit.
This is happening to me now, but instead of stealing language from my friends and coworkers, I’m stealing idiosyncrasies from my students who have varying levels of English ability.
I no longer remember how often native English speakers use the word “so-so.”
Evidently, the Japanese school system introduces “so-so” as part of students’ key vocabulary, so I hear it a lot in the classroom. At first, I didn’t love the terminology, but I didn’t correct it because it’s not grammatically incorrect. Now, it sounds fine. It sounds normal.
On the surface, it’s not an issue. You’re allowed to answer, “How are you today?” with “so-so.” I remember learning it as a translation for something in Spanish class.
But I wonder if I’m doing a disservice to my more advanced students when I act like it’s super natural speech. Isn’t it way more common to hear “Eh, I’m okay”? If someone asks you, “Are you a good cook?” wouldn’t you usually respond with, “Mm, kind of”?
Another word that I have cemented into my vocabulary, very slowly and then all at once, is “maybe.”
Obviously, this is a real English word. In fact, it’s a very commonly-used English word. But it should not be the STAPLE word that it has become.
Japanese is a language spoken with high levels of ambiguity. Out and about, I hear them using the word “tabun” very frequently. I feel like it starts every other sentence. The direct translation is “maybe,” and I guess no one bothered to teach students that we don’t actually use the word the same way.
I realize that as an English teacher, it is actually my job to go about explaining that cultural difference. It’s not very American to be so indirect, and language is linked to culture, right? Do they want to speak like a Japanese person using English, or do they want to sound like they’ve been bilingual since birth?
It’s a tough question.
I have a friend who is very interested in speaking English as naturally as possible, and I mentioned the situation to him a few weeks ago. He appreciated the “correction” (or at least the explanation) and has been trying to implement the change.
Unfortunately, I am a giant hypocrite and instead of helping him phase out the usage of “maybe”, I have started using it as much as, if not MORE than, he ever did.
Instead of texting, “here!” when I get to the restaurant, I say “maybe arrived.” Instead of saying, “yeah, I think so!” when asked my opinion, I say “maybe a good idea.”
Yesterday, someone asked me “Do you understand?” and I said “Mmm maybe okay.”
What is that answer? “Maybe okay”?? That’s not a natural response for “yes.”
Except that it is now. For me.
Problem of problems.