Reflections on being bilingual and bicultural

Having parents from different racial backgrounds has meant that I have spent most of my life comparing the social customs of England, where I have lived for my whole life, and Japan, my mother’s country.

There are a number of ways in which the linguistic differences between English and Japanese highlight cultural differences between the two societies. Japanese differs drastically from most European languages due to its grammatical ambiguity.  There are no articles, no distinction between singular and plural, no genders for nouns, pronouns are used only in exceptional circumstances and there are few verb tenses. The ambiguous nature of the people reflects this linguistic ambiguity. Questions that the British believe to require a direct response are approached with extreme caution in a Japanese context.

This difference attitude is illustrated by the following story. My mother’s Japanese friend came to Britain to study English and when asked by her host family whether or not she wanted some cake she declined the offer. In truth, she had been craving a slice of victoria sponge all week, but she felt that she could not accept the offer, especially after only being asked once. A few hours later, she returned to the kitchen to discover that the family had devoured the entire cake and that there was not a crumb left for her to eat. She was shocked. In some regions of Japan, anyone who accepts an offering of food before being invited to eat at least thrice is considered to have the social awareness, emotional sensitivity and self-restraint of a hungry elephant.

Japanese is also unusual in that the speech of women collectively differs from that of men and vice versa, a convention to which even toddlers adhere. There are many words and grammatical structures which a man could use without disapproval but would be considered vulgar should they be uttered by a woman. In my opinion this reflects the position of women in Japanese society, who are subject to a great deal of injustice, whether it be with regard to employment or a general sense of inferiority. For example, it is still common for women to be excluded from conferences, even if they hold the same positions as men within the company.

These are but a few examples of how the linguistic disparities between English and Japanese reflect differences in cultural norms as well as how people wish to present themselves to others.

I gave up on trying to order this ice-lolly in Portuguese!

I am standing at the till. I feel a bit like Eminem. My palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy (but don’t worry, on my sweater there’s no spaghetti). I have one shot, one opportunity to exchange a few words in Portuguese with a real life lisboeta:

“No, sorry, I don’t have any change”, “yes please, a bag would be great”. I open my mouth, but the words won’t come out. I’m choking, how!? Everybody, in the queue behind me, is joking now (while also getting very impatient). I stutter. But the clock’s run out, times up, over. The words that every language-learner abroad hates come tumbling out of the cashier’s mouth. “Don’t worry, I speak English”. Snap back to reality.

I have recently started watching a soap called Bem-vindo a Beirais to keep up my Portuguese. It’s about a man from Lisbon who moves to a village in the country to look after some greenhouses. As enthralling as that sounds, the main reason I watch it is so that I can pause and rewind the characters when I want, increase and decrease the volume when I want and, most importantly, the characters don’t stop and start speaking English when they discover how poor my Portuguese is. If only I could say the same for the locals I came across in Lisbon this summer. Practising your language abroad is a bit of a catch-22. You’re trying to improve by speaking with the locals but the locals, either to spare you the effort/embarrassment or because they can’t be bothered to deal with your feeble attempts at sounding authentic, find it easier to just launch into English. As I had daily classes at a language school during my week in Portugal, you might wonder why I didn’t practice with the other students. To get a general idea about the level of Portuguese amongst most of them, all you need to do is think back to GCSEs. Let’s just say that the only subjects we were able to approach comfortably were the weather and climate change. Not much of an Eco-warrior, I had little to say about both.

Returning home from my trip was bitter sweet as it made me wonder how helpful travelling really is for a language learner. But maybe that’s missing the point of the trip altogether. I came back with about the same level of Portuguese as I had when I left (although I had somehow mastered a fusion of Portuguese and Spanish known as portunhol, which was spoken by most of the students at the school). I did, however, manage to catch glimpse of how true lisboetas speak. I can pore over lists of vocabulary and verb conjugations to my heart’s content at home, but if I hadn’t gone to Lisbon, would I have known that “muito giro” is no longer the cool way of saying “cool” in Portugal? Or that in Brazil, these words would be met with utter incomprehension and condescension as they are simply not “legal”? You can imagine my confusion when my surfing instructor nicknamed me “bifana”, pork sandwich, before I knew that in Lisbon, it is slang for “fresh meat”. It’s much harder to lose yourself in a foreign culture than it might seem. So, if you get the rare chance to speak Portuguese in Portugal, you better never let it go.

Hitchiking to Morocco and reflections on Language Learning

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I am convinced that the only way to truly become fluent in a language, for you to speak it (perhaps not always flawlessly) without hesitation, is to put yourself in a situation where you have to use it as opposed to merely studying when you feel like it. Nothing will force you to use a language quite like being stranded at a French petrol station in the middle of nowhere, knowing your only way out is to convince someone to give you a lift…

It’s no secret that at Cambridge, in MML the emphasis is placed on having a sound grasp of the written languages you are studying, knowing the ins and outs of its obscure grammatical features. (L’imparfait du Subjonctif in French anyone?) For our lecturers, this is more important than a solid grasp of colloquial usage. If your aim is to read medieval literature and philosophy, great! But not so great if you aim to actually speak the language fluently. Reading fluency and oral fluency are two separate phenomena. This is perhaps the biggest complaint I’ve heard (and made) to my peers studying MML at Cambridge; some have even said that their oral French/Spanish has gotten worse since coming here. But hey, that’s what the year abroad is for right?

I’m not bashing the fact that Cambridge is often more concerned with literary forms of language than the colloquial forms; I’ve just come to accept that gaining colloquial fluency has to be something extra-curricular. On a life changing two week trip hitch-hiking though France and Spain to reach Morocco, I came to appreciate what a gift speaking a second or third language fluently truly is.

In April 2012 myself and Leah Knight, both of us Language Freshers at Girton (me French and Arabic, her French and Spanish) and both eager to actually get some speaking practice in before our dreaded oral exams, decided to embark on the trip of a lifetime. We signed ourselves up for Link Community Development’s Charity Hitch-hike, and chose Morocco as our destination. The months flew by and before we knew it we’d raised our money, both through legitimate fund-raising and badgering friends and family, and were on a ferry bound for Le Harvre. Let the adventure begin!

Le Havre, our first sight of France
Le Havre, our first sight of France

Okay so we didn’t get off to the best start. Le Harvre was a wet and miserable place when we were there and we had to walk half a mile outside the city centre in the drizzling grey mist that enveloped the town in order to even stand a chance of getting a lift. To add insult to injury there were two other groups participating in the same event, both headed for Morocco. We had chatted with them on the ferry, and felt a quiet sense of smugness upon finding out that we were the only group that actually spoke the languages of the countries we would be hitching through. Upon arrival in Marrakesh we met up with one of the groups again, and their stories of how great it would have been to understand what was going on half the time confirmed to us what an ace we had up our sleeves being linguists.

However, when you’re standing outside a petrol station beside a busy road trying to thumb a ride, it doesn’t matter how good your French is, and the other two groups were picked up first. Demoralised and soaked, after a couple of hours we had begun to give up hope when a slightly bemused commuter stopped and offered to take us a few miles down the road. We came to realise that lifts like this weren’t always the best idea as we ended up stranded in an even worse location with even less passing traffic. But hey, we got our first lift and more importantly we had our first conversation in French. (maybe we could do this after all?)

Please stop!
Please stop!

As the day wore on we got better and better at hitching rides, and after having to reject an offer to stay the night in Nantes (too far off course to the west) we had somehow managed to make it all the way to the outskirts of Le Mans by mid-afternoon. This is where disaster struck. The next town on our planned route south from Le Mans was Tours (and putting Morocco on your sign probably wouldn’t get you very far) so upon arrival at Mans we got the biro out (note to self – bring permanent markers next time!) and scribbled ‘Tours’ on a shabby, damp piece of A4 Paper as legibly as we could manage.

Unfortunately for us, the Romanian lorry driver who would pick us up didn’t have the best knowledge of French Geography and thought we were lost tour guides! He was a lot of fun, blaring Romanian rap music and honking his horn whilst driving way too fast and showing us photos of his family, but unfortunately he was headed towards Paris, not south via Tours and before we had time to tell him and get out he’d turned on to the A11 towards Paris. He was such a nice guy, but unfortunately between his rudimentary English and our non-existent Romanian I don’t think we even managed to convey that we didn’t want to go to Paris but were heading south to Morocco; I think he just thought I liked drawing routes on maps. We managed to convince him to pull over at the next service station (which, thank god, had a bridge to the other side of the motorway for us to double back). He was sad to see us go – “in the you go? Ok 🙁 In the bye” – but going to Paris was sadly not an option.

Merde! On est où là?!
Merde! On est où là?!

So there we were, off course and disoriented, sitting in the French version of Welcome Break, sipping coffee and despairing about what to do next. Up until now, all the interaction had come to us. If someone stops to pick up a hitch-hiker, it’s usually out of curiosity or for company. They will more often than not be friendly and willing to talk to you. However, now it was a different kettle of fish. We were stranded and the only way to get out was to actually convince a French person to let two slightly soggy (although not yet smelly – it was only day one) English teenagers in the back of their car.

At first we were both reluctant to approach people, but we came to realise it was getting too late to be picky or shy and we plucked up the courage to talk to literally everyone who pulled up to refill their tank. Eventually, Leah managed to convince a reluctant woman from Le Mans to take us to the outskirts of her town. Persuading someone to give you a lift when you are stranded will certainly flex your language muscles a lot more than anything in French Grammar In Context, Third Edition ever could. She eventually warmed to us, after we assured her that her husband would not find out that she’d picked up autostoppeurs as she was adamant that he’d kill her if he found out!

Our 5 Star forest retreat
Our 5 Star forest retreat, just off the Motorway outside Le Mans

We camped by the side of the road that night (a tent is definitely a must for any hitch-hiker) and the next morning, after brushing off the light dusting of snow that had settled overnight (this was the year that spring got lost somewhere on the way, remember?) we parked ourselves by the side of the road, thumbs outstretched, smiling eagerly, patiently and hopefully waiting. Blanche DuBois was proved right, time and time again, you can always depend on the kindness of strangers.

Over the course of our 1800 mile adventure we were picked up by some amazing and diverse people, who we simply never would have interacted with otherwise. Single men, families, single women, ex-hitch-hikers and ex-gendarmes; teachers, builders and civil servants; we met them all, a complete cross-section of both French and Spanish society. We listened to their amazing stories, which I simply can’t do justice too in a short article like this one, all of which were in their native languages. That beats a 9am Use of class hands down! But after a while the fact that we were speaking another language almost became secondary; the important thing was that we were interacting with these people, sharing our stories with them and listening to theirs. For me, this is fluency. Fluency is not being able to conjugate obscure grammatical tenses that are barely in use today or being able to read centuries old literature. Fluency is being able to express yourself meaningfully and convey emotion – the basic goal of language – the basic goal of being a human being!

Backpacking in Bordeux
Backpacking in Bordeaux

The trip has solidified my philosophy on language. Language is about communication, about culture, and both these things are about meaningful interactions and shared experiences with other people. For me, languages are not about grammar and phonology, interesting though these areas may be to many. For me, being multilingual is such an amazing skill because of the interactions it enables you to have with others who have completely different life experiences and backgrounds. Languages are a means to an end. Taking part in the Hitch was one of the most rewarding and interesting things I have ever done, both in terms of my language ability and my own personal development. So what’s stopping you from going on the adventure of a lifetime?

Link Community Development is an amazing charity who does some great work in Sub Saharan Africa. This incredible event began back in 1992 as the Cambridge-Casablanca challenge, but, believe it or not, myself and Leah were the only group from Cambridge to participate in 2012. And she only heard about the Hitch from her sister at the ‘Other Place’, where it is actually a popular event, akin to Jailbreak (although Hitch-hiking is arguably more meaningful, rewarding and difficult than using your connections to get free plane tickets to Hawaii or Australia). This year me and Leah are determined to get the Hitch up and running again in Cambridge.

If this hasn’t convinced you, here are some photos of what awaits you in Morocco! (Where, let’s not forget, they also speak French… hint hint, nudge nudge)

If Morocco isn’t your cup of mint tea, or perhaps if you’re studying German/Italian then maybe Croatia is the destination for you? The Hitch is of course open to any University student  with a sense of adventure who can find a partner, and navigating the language barrier is certainly very fun at times (see the bit about Romanian lorry drivers), so if you don’t speak the language don’t let this put you off! I just want to stress what an amazing and rewarding opportunity this is for us linguists to actually use our language skills!

Sign up today! You won’t regret it!

Click here to find out more about LCD’s work.

A Year Abroad in Moscow

The homestay. What better way to truly experience Russia? You don’t want tourism, you want realism. You close your eyes and put your hands in the life of an online company who promise to find you a host and a home for a month. You’ll get better at Russian, and that’s pretty much all that’s guaranteed. You’ll have ‘a Russian experience’, which is a very ambiguous phrase.

And so I move in with Lyubov.

Fiery red hair, gravelly voice: she’s not going to take shit from anyone and she has seven locks on her door just to make sure. She is the most wonderfully eccentric and fantastic woman, and her name literally means ‘Love’. England has the same trend of taking names from virtues too—Grace, Joy, Hope—but they’re all a bit wishy-washy. In Russia they go straight for the jugular.

As soon as I arrive I realise the catch: I’m sleeping in her room. Not with her, which is probably a good thing, but then she’s moved into the sitting room to sleep on the sofa, and that leaves me with a healthy dose of guilt from day one. I never thought I’d be the kind of guy who forces an old lady to sleep on a sofa. I’m learning every day. So I’m in her bed, with its electric-blue satin sheets, the porcelain cats and cherubs watching me from corners of the room, Jesus looking down at me from above my head, tapestries of bears playing in a wood near Smolensk on the walls, and lacy curtains hiding a view of the local karaoke club, where I know that what goes on is definitely not karaoke or they’d never allow karaoke at children’s parties.

I’ve opted to cook for myself, but nonetheless Lyubov insists on making me the odd meal. Again that phrase ‘a Russian experience’ is thrown out there. But it suits me fine for the first few days, because the endless supply of home-grown apples, onions and potatoes from her last dacha visit has limited my designated fridge space to three square inches. And, to be fair, some of her food is quite tasty. The pumpkin porridge is a triumph. But then the red onion and kidney bean mulch needs a bit of work, and cranberries take all the fun out of an apple pie. And I challenge the politest man in the world to finish a glass of kefir without choking and saying ‘I think there’s something wrong with your milk.’

I learn Lyubov’s household rules by trial and error. When you make a mistake, you learn the rule and remember for next time. It’s a lot like grammar. You wash your hands on arrival. You always leave your keys on the hook. Under no circumstances do you put a spoon in the fridge.

Once a week a very small Tadjik mystic comes to tell her fortune. For a modest fee. I know when he’s coming over because Lyubov boils up a pot of special tea. They go into her study and shut the door. I wish I knew what goes on in there but sadly I never will. All I know is that he can only see into the future short-term because he comes every week. And seeing as Lyubov’s fate remains largely the same, he presumably doesn’t have much trouble finding things to predict. He may have fooled her but he knows I’m on to him. I pass him in the hallway as he stuffs his rubles into his pocket and puts on his boots, and he gives me a look that says ‘Don’t rat me out, mate’. The first thing Lyubov said to me when I moved in was that I should always be careful not to get mugged by a Tadjik. I’d point this out to her but it might look cheeky. Also, I don’t want to cross a mystic. He has the power to make my life very difficult: if he decides to sense an evil presence in Lyubov’s house then I’m gone.

When the mystic is gone I ask Lyubov what he said. He told her ‘she should be careful with her money’. The man clearly has an excellent sense of humour.

I live out of my suitcase because the cupboard is full of Lyubov’s things. When the day arrives when it’s all starting to fester and get a bit nasty I ask her if she has a washing machine. She pretty much laughs in my face. She has a friend over at the time and she laughs at me too. Lyubov says something that I don’t fully understand. It probably translates roughly as ‘Man up, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and wash your clothes in the bath.’

As I prepare to bathe my pants and socks, Lyubov comes to my rescue with her secret weapon: a portable, miniature clothes-washing apparatus. It looks like a phone-charger with a black plastic teardrop on the end of the wire, about the size of a spoon-head. Lyubov assures me that it cleans clothes perfectly well. We fill up a plastic tub with water and detergent and tip my washing in. We plug in the contraption and she places the end in the water. I watch it, expecting it to spring to life. Nothing happens. No noise, no vibrating, the water doesn’t move, nothing. Apparently we leave it for an hour and it washes everything. I’m not convinced. I shut it in the bathroom—perhaps it doesn’t like being watched. I look it up on Google and I can’t find any evidence that phone-charger washing machines exist. The Tadjik mystic must have sold it to her.

After an hour the water is brown, which is progress, I think, but the black plastic teardrop still sits there, looking at me smugly and doing nothing. I poke it and Lyubov tells me to leave it alone. I retreat to my room.

In the end the clothes are as clean as any clothes that have sat in stagnant, tepid, soapy water for two hours. It’ll have to do. Now it’ll probably be a week until they’re dry. I sneak a look at the instructions for this magic washer. They’re very long and I can’t be bothered to translate them, suffice to say that if it actually was a genuine gadget for cleaning clothes, we certainly didn’t use it properly. Part of me thinks it was just a washing machine extension cord.

Lyubov used to be a teacher of Russian literature and language. As well as being extremely useful for me, as it allows me to have long chats in about the books I’m reading, which is great all-round practice, it also means she has a few students who pop in and out from time to time for lessons. On one of my poorly-timed hall crossings I meet one of these pupils as she’s leaving. She’s an English-speaking girl, so I make my usual small talk about how badly I speak Russian and how well she speaks English and what I’m doing in Moscow. It’s a nice enough chat, but then I see Lyubov scurry pass with a sly smile on her face and a scheme visibly forming in her head. Curse my natural charm. I tell the girl that my samovar has boiled and escape to the shelter of the kitchen. I hear the two of them giggling conspiratorially in the foyer.

A few minutes later, in comes Lyubov.

‘You know the best way to get really good at Russian?’

Here it comes.

‘Get a Russian girlfriend.’

I laugh it off and tell her that I already have an English girlfriend, which is why my English is so good. That outstanding piece of humour completely passes her by. She asks me if I like the girl and I say she’s pleasant. She tells me that the girl is sixteen and wealthy and I wonder if she’s testing my moral compass. Regardless, next time she comes over Lyubov is determined to make sure we become friends. Who knows, maybe we could go to a museum together? I make a mental note of the day and the time so I know when to be out of the house.

A week on I know she’s still working on that particular scheme so I have to be on my guard. If Dostoyevsky has taught me one thing, it’s that older ladies love to matchmake naive men. But then if it’s taught her one thing, it’s that students murder landladies with axes, so hopefully she won’t press the matter.

Lyubov is wonderful. I’ve got two more weeks with her, so it’s not over yet, but I’ll miss her when I’m gone. She probably won’t miss me because she’ll be glad to have her bed back. I’ve heard her laughing with her friends at my idiotic, bumbling Englishness, which makes me feel less bad about thrusting her into the blogosphere without her knowledge. I’ve gambled and I’m confident that she isn’t a blogger. Even if she is, it doesn’t matter, because this piece is a tribute to how delightfully quirky she is and how much fun it’s been living with her. She’s taught me so much: about Russia, Russian culture, the food, the outlook, the literature, all of it. I feel like I’m her protégé. I’m certainly her fan. You could even call me her lyubovnik*. And when you start pulling Russian puns like that out of the bag, you can be sure you’ve learned something.

* I’m not her lyubovnik.