Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Japanese and Social Positioning
Google Scholar is an evil, horrible, addictive timesink, and I did indeed recently get sucked in. All of which is just by way of introduction for how I came to be reading an article on learner subjectivity here in my supposedly post-academic life. The article, The Role of Learner Subjectivity in Language Sociolinguistic Competence: Western Women Learning Japanese, by Meryl Siegal, (Applied Linguistics 17(3), 1996) had some very interesting quotes in it that stood out to me as very neatly summing up exactly why true politeness in Japanese is so hard, and why I was often relieved to be foreign, so I could get away with not actually knowing.
[P]roper use of Japanese teaches one that a human being is always and inevitably involved in a multiplicity of social relationships. Boundaries between self and other are fluid and constantly changing, depending on context and on the social positioning people adopt in particular situations...

[A]wareness of complex social positioning is an inescapable element of any utterance in Japanese, for it is utterly impossible to form a sentence without also commenting on the relationship between oneself and one's interlocutor...
-Kondo 31
According the bibliography, these are from D. Kondo's Crafting Selves: Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace, 1990. It all just makes me wonder at how amazing our minds are, that we have the capacity to internalize this kind of complexity and have it become automatic. Of course, it also makes me rather frustrated at the kind of effort it would take to get it to become automatic, but oh well.

In case you were wondering, the main conclusion of the article itself was that most white foreigners in Japan, who are only there for a short time, even if they are studying Japanese intensively, will not be explicitly taught pragmatically appropriate language, or even regularly corrected, because it is assumed it would be too difficult, and not necessary for a foreigner anyway. Not at all an earth-shattering conclusion, and still seemingly true in my experience 8 years later.

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