I started using English when I was four. My parents decided to move to Boston, and consequently, I began to attend an American kindergarten. Because I couldn’t speak any English at that point, I never really understood what was going on around me. I distinctively remember the first day of school, when I found myself staring into the eyes of a boy who had jet-black hair and dark brown eyes. He looks just like me! That must mean he’s Japanese! However, when I enthusiastically invited him to play with me in Japanese (「一緒に遊ぼう！」), he stared at me before shaking his head and walking away. That was a blow to my self-confidence; at the tender age of four, I couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to play with me. It quickly became evident that in my new surroundings, learning English was a complete necessity.
The truth is, I’ve never felt confident in either English or Japanese. When I’m with Japanese people, I feel inadequate in my ability to speak their language. While day-to-day conversations don’t make me as anxious, in formal situations such as job interviews, I worry that they’re catching all my grammar or word usage mistakes and are marking me down as being stupid. Attending Japanese school was especially hard for me, as my teachers and classmates couldn’t accept me for being “different” while looking Japanese. During such times, I would use my ‘fluent’ English ability as an excuse for my lack of Japanese, making the situation worse when my English teachers proceeded to use me as a human CD player during classes.
On the other hand, when I’m in the U.S. or Canada, I rely on the fact that I’m Japanese – on the stereotype that we are generally incapable of speaking English. Compared to everyone else, my English is passable, but not perfect, so I struggle to speak up in class or in groups of native speakers. I know I speak English to a proficient enough level that when I do make errors, they stand out more, and there have been humiliating moments when my friends would laugh at those mistakes. I feel the most confident when I’m with my bilingual English-Japanese friends, because I know that they speak and understand the hybrid language that I speak, the mix of Japanese and English that generally sounds like, “Kyoune (Today), I had class dakedo (but) I took a nap dakara (so) I missed it.” My bilingual friends, mostly from other international schools, will understand this perfectly. As for my other friends and my parents? They would probably just stare at me, if not lecture me on the importance of sticking to one language when I speak.
I probably communicate better in English in all forms (writing, reading, speaking, listening), but Japanese is part of who I am. I want to use Japanese as perfectly as my Japanese counterparts, but I probably will never be able to reach native level in all four forms. I feel the most satisfied when I can share about my Japanese background while in Canada, or when I can share about my Western upbringing in Japan. For my Master’s thesis, I want my work to reflect the bridge between my two identities. In one of my favorite articles of all time, Jim Cummins urges teachers to respect their students’ multicultural backgrounds and use the variety of knowledge in the classroom to help their students reach full potential, a form of identity investment. As time goes on and bilingualism, even multilingualism, becomes a norm, I hope for a day when teachers embrace the notion of identity investment in the classroom, so that everyone can reach their full potential in all their language identities… even in Japan.
Cummins, J., Bismilla, V., Chow, P., Cohen, S., Giampapa, F., Leoni, L., … Sastri, P. (2005). Affirming identity in multilingual classrooms. Educational Leadership, 63(1), 38-43. Retrieved from http://edfs200ell.pbworks.com/