#3. You は何しに Japan へ？
by Jayna Tokie Tanaka
Semilingualism is a word coined by Leonard Bloomfield, the American linguist, in the 1920s to describe a phenomenon he had encountered while doing research among speakers of Native American languages. It seems that some people who had been exposed to two languages while they were growing up could use neither of these languages proficiently. In other words, they were neither monolingual nor completely bilingual, but had deficiencies in both the languages they used. Recently, this word has become somewhat unpopular among linguistic scholars because it sounds politically incorrect (PC). Rather, it has been noted that almost all people are in some way bilingual, or multilingual if there are more than two languages involved in the people’s speech. For example, in China and India, where dialects and languages abound, children must learn the standard dialect at school. This happens to some degree in all parts of the world, and therefore, in some people’s opinions, the use of the term semilingualism is unnecessary. However, I feel that the word does help me understand some individuals I have known, people who learned two languages in unstructured (not classroom) settings. Perhaps it is also a term that can be used to help explain a phenomenon I encountered when I first came to Japan and have been hearing more and more of recently.
After coming to Japan, I met children of American military personnel and Japanese mothers. Although their spoken Japanese seemed perfect, especially because of their good pronunciation, they could not read or write Japanese because they had attended American-run schools on military bases. That meant that their English was better than their Japanese because in a school setting, reading and writing, in addition to speaking, are required. What bothered me was that when they knew that the person they were speaking to could understand and use both languages, they used both English and Japanese jumbled together like this: You は本当に lying. Me はもう can’t believe you. In other words, they spoke in the same way as the title to this essay. The title is supposed to be a takeoff on the TV Tokyo program, but it was more shocking than funny to me when I first heard this kind of conversation.
I had not heard this strange speech for a long time, but about five years ago, I began walking from the school campus where I teach to the nearest train station. As I walk through the campus and down the main street, I am often sandwiched between groups of students because we are all hurrying home after classes get out. I can hear conversations, and recently, I have been hearing more and more that include the kind of sentence in the title of this essay. These students use neither Japanese nor English separately. They use both languages, usually in the same sentence. When I sometimes turn around to see what they look like, they usually look Japanese, so I assume that they have either spent time in the U.S. or were educated at schools in Japan that use English as the medium of teaching. This bothers me a great deal because I have known people who have told me, in one way or another, that having been exposed to two languages, Japanese and English, meant that they had confidence in neither. This is what I hear all the time these days, waiting for the elevator in school and sitting on the school bus.
I hope that what I am hearing is not a permanent defect. I hope that that these students are not “semilingual.” I really believe that we should have one language that we can call our “native language” so that we can use this language with confidence in whatever situations we face.
Jayna Tokie Tanaka（ジェイナ・トキエ・タナカ）