language learning as a self-imposed ostracizing endeavor

Sorry for the cryptic title.

I was thinking the other day about the way I learned English during my teenage years in Mexico and how in general learning and speaking other languages in a largely monolingual community makes you the target of mocking and bullying (your mileage might vary).

I went to a technical secondary school (a sort of public junior high school mixed with trades learning) where my first year of formal English education (in 1999) was based on repeating phrases from a book and listening to tapes played by a non-native teacher, who probably didn't speak the language very often. I didn't progress much apart from learning basic vocabulary. However, when I started playing (pirated) PlayStation games, without Spanish translation or subtitles, I started expanding the scenarios in which I could use my repertoire. But mind you, I was talking to no one, yet.

In the second year of secondary, I changed schools in order to avoid further trauma (non-language related bullying, I must clarify). I went to another school where the demographics where quite different. In my previous school the kids were mostly "urban" (I guess in Mexico that means kind of gang members in the making, right where my family was living), whereas in the new place the kids were more from underprivileged households (small rural communities in the outskirts of the city). Fortunately for those kids and me, there were voluntary teachers from private schools giving some hours teaching there.

During second year it also became very clear that access to media, even just regular tv, was key in making kids advance in English (and other subjects as well). Therefore, more fortunate students like me started grasping pronunciation and grammar a bit faster. Which made the teacher (Ms. Castro) very glad, I guess, but at the same time somehow worried, for now she had to come up with a way to push the other kids, too. There were two main strategies I remember: Have small conversations about random stuff in from of everyone and pairing advanced learners with students falling behind.

The first option sounded best but was stressing to the student picked by the teacher (most times my friend Jon or me): lets say the teacher starts commenting on a movie and I have to follow up. There, I said something in English. Now, after class, when the teacher is not around, someone starts doing an impression of me. I guess that's unavoidable in junior high, but adds to the "pressure" one has to put up with when trying new things in front of others.

The second option was useless, because the teacher was not able to listen to all individual conversations (anyway, it was almost always just reading from the book), the students judge themselves and some are just playing (we're talking about 13-year-olds).

Preparatory (high school) was even worse because the teachers assumed if you didn't learn already then there's little that can be done.

I want to open a parentheses here. Maybe it was not exactly trying to learn a language, but an environment that's harsh on being different what causes this isolation I’ve been experiencing.

When I visited my family living in United States in 2009, I didn't think there would be much criticism to my second language. Boy was I wrong. But it was an interesting, different comment on my communication skills. Apparently my accent was "posh" (pretentious), as in British English (thanks to watching too many Doctor Who episodes). I didn't mean to have that effect on purpose! That was just how I spoke back then.

As an aside, my family in America has (IMO) a mixed level of integration with American culture. My older cousins, who migrated in their early 20s, speak mostly Spanish at home and English at work. My Aunt (god rest her soul) didn't speak much English, I think. At least I don't think I ever saw her speaking in English with the locals (A lot of people in the Midwest seem to have a good grasp of Spanish).

Now, living in Japan I get to see another aspect of this foreign language "shaming". For years Japan's education system has struggled with English learning, with little to show despite the effort. The ALT (assistant language teacher) scheme gets right having native speakers in order to give students a target to practice their pronunciation and get immediate feedback. All this is very nice but gets lost as soon as we get to Japan's way of dealing with foreign language pronunciations.

For most people (in Japan), the pronunciation learning goes like this: You see a foreign word, written already in a Japanese script (Katakana), which is the way you should read it. The big problem here is that Katakana conveys only Japanese pronunciation. Thus the butchering begins, and you can imagine all the stereotypes you saw in South Park come to life (City Sushi!).

A sensible way to do things would be to ditch the crutches (Katakana) and limp for a while only with the Latin Alphabet, until you get a decent grasp of English pronunciation (and come to terms with the fact that you're going to get it wrong anyway). Japan as a country refuses to do this and it is both funny and sad. Unlike the French, who instead of taking English loanwords as-is and use French words to describe English terms (whenever possible and if the pop culture's breakneck speed allows it), in Japan most loanwords coming from English contort into a sad shape vaguely reminiscent of their originals. Japanese people learn this "new" words and when spoken to foreigners hilarity ensues, because the locals are convinced this word, coming from America, will be understood, but the foreigners are hit with vaguely English-like gibberish, signifying nothing (at least in their heads).

You must be wondering, why is this guy talking about Japanese now? Please bear with me 🐻

When I first came to Japan a while back, most of my conversations where in English only. I was a short-term visitor and nobody was expecting me to say anything in Japanese anyway.

I went back home and after some time passed (while working and studying Japanese), I came to work in Tokyo. In my new situation, speaking only Japanese was expected, and such is the life of a software engineer, that I had to use English loanwords often. But they were in Japanese. Sort of.

Whenever I said something in the “native” pronunciation I would get confused looks. I was saying things like database, configuration files, ethernet controllers, etc. It felt like those times in secondary when the teacher made me say something again for the other students to listen, like being embarrassed for no clear reason. So I started to gradually change to the Japanese pronunciation. Things started to flow better, but it felt like going backwards, somehow.

I guess this is my life now. I don’t have native speaker friends at work, so I don’t know how they feel when they fake their accents or even if they have to in order to “better express themselves”.