Freedom of Speech


The children aren’t supposed to speak Japanese in class, but they do. I’m supposed to discourage them but, out of laziness and selfishness, I don’t. Lazy, because when they speak Japanese to each other I can tell if they understand the day’s lesson and selfish because I’ve learned more than a few good turns of phrase from my cheeky little monkeys. In the past year and a half, they’ve exposed me to slang, insults, plain verb forms and Kansai dialect more times than they could possibly guess. Some of the slower ones still haven’t figured out that I can understand them some of the time, so they’ve also exposed me to their feelings about English (boring and difficult), poop (AWESOME and ENDLESSLY FASCINATING!), and classroom procedures (annoying). Every once in a while, they also unwittingly let me in on their observations about me.

A brief catalog:

  • I’m not funny
  • I am funny
  • I have gray hair
  • I’m wearing a cute shirt/necklace/shade of lipstick
  • I have a hole in my stocking
  • I draw creepy stick figures
  • I don’t understand Japanese
  • I might understand Japanese
  • My “E”‘s are strange; my “W”‘s look like butts
  • I’m singing again
  • I sing better than they do
  • I need to hurry up
  • I need to stop
  • I already told them we have homework; why am I telling them a third time?
  • I made a mistake and will hopefully do it again

They’re little; it hasn’t dawned on them yet that foreigners might be able to speak languages other than English. As such, I’m sure the temptation to speak freely is irresistible, something they could never do in regular school or in the presence of any other adult. That sense of freedom is something my friends and I struggle with as well. Of course many Japanese can’t speak English; it’s why the government gave us the Visa. Of course they won’t understand us; we’ve taught enough classes to know firsthand that the question “How’s everybody?” sends them into a state of deer-in-headlights shock. That girl is wearing a T-shirt that says “God Bress” – what can I say but “You’ve got to be kidding me”? Of course I could wait until we get off the train, but something about the great probability that she won’t understand has erased all sense of human decency from my mind. I have to comment. I have to say something! I don’t. That’s just one of the differences between me and an 8 year old. It’s a pity I won’t be there the day they realize I’ve been listening in the whole time.

As for the mothers, they think I have an adorable tiny head.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Ginger says:

    you should speak spanish or italian in front of them just for a brief second and see if they recognize that you’re speaking a different language.

    korean was forbidden in our classrooms but i often used it to my advantage to help me in class. like if a kid was clicking his pen, i could look at him and say “do you want to die?” in korean and he’d be so shocked.

    or, answer them in english. like if they say “she is funny today”, say thank you. i’m glad you think i’m funny. i’m sure the looks on their faces would be priceless!

  2. ieatmypigeon says:

    I should have mentioned; sometimes I do respond in English with a thank you if they say something complimentary, or a “yes” or “no” if they ask questions about what they’re learning. Some kids are cool about it, but are also aware that my understanding is imperfect, which is why they still dare to insult each other. Then there are the kids who have seen me respond to Japanese comments but keep right on yapping about me as though I’m not there. I called them “slower” but could have probably used a different word.

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