There’s this couple I’ve known for many years. The wife graduated with a B.A. in English Literature and had taught English for many years. The husband, on the other hand, was a doctor. Having research experience abroad and about 30 years of experience on the field, he had high credentials and did well, although he was sometimes a little socially awkward.
I was talking on the phone the other day to the wife, who was complaining about the lack of her husband’s English ability. “I was so ashamed when we went out for dinner with that doctor from Taiwan. All he could ask in his bad pronunciation was how much [the Taiwanese doctor] earned and what he did in his free time.” “He asked how much he earned?” “Yes, and that was all he could ask.” “Oh… Well, that’s too bad.” “I was mortified. I can never go out with him!”
…everyone, meet my wonderful parents.
Not to show any disrespect towards them, but this conversation got me thinking about what “native-ness” means. It does not just point to where they’re from, but also encompasses how well they command themselves in the language – their pronunciation and social skills. Moyer (2004) mentions that pronunciation is what people use to judge “native-ness” the most (p. 85), so in order to sound native, pronunciation is a must. Additionally, when we learn a second language, we need to know what is or is not acceptable in the society. Asking about someone’s salary is quite acceptable in Japan, especially if you have a higher position (like my dad did). On the other hand, it is usually unacceptable in English-speaking countries to do the same thing. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis says that culture and language are so tightly bound that learning a new language means that you’ll also learn a new culture and worldview as well (Brown, 2007, pp. 211-213). Sometimes, by learning a second language and the various cultural aspects that come with the process, we must learn to ignore the ways of our first language and culture, adapting to the ways of the second culture.
There’s a story about a Japanese guy who went abroad and ordered, “Pan (bread) – tsuu (two)!” to which the waiter confusedly asked, “You want pants? This is a restaurant, sir.” We laugh at these stories, but maybe those are just innocent mistakes. Just like second language learning takes a long time, acquiring the culture that comes with it will take awhile, too.
- Brown, H. D. (2006). Sociocultural factors. In Principles of language learning and teaching(5th ed., pp. 189-191). Retrieved from http://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/40433526/
- Moyer, A. (2004). Age, accent, and experience in second language acquisition: An integrated approach to critical period inquiry. Retrieved from https://books.google.ca/