November 07, 2007

The perils of mixing romance with language learning

A few days ago, Michael Chen drew my attention to a piece by Matthew Rusling in the Christian Science Monitor, "I Sound Like What In Japanese?" ( 9/17/2007):

Like many Western men who spend more than a year in Japan, I learned most of my intonation, expressions, and slang – the things not taught in the classroom – by mimicking a Japanese girlfriend.

I thought my Japanese was fine, while in reality the effeminate, almost childish twang I had been learning made me sound very much like a 20-something, pink miniskirted Japanese woman.

Although I know very little about Japanese, one of the features that Rusling cites came up about a dozen years ago in an introductory phonetics course -- but in reverse, and given a different interpretation. He write that

... women tend to ... [elongate] their word endings in an almost coquettish attempt to flatter the listener.

In the course I was teaching, in the unit on phrase-final lengthening, we did an exercise in which each student recorded a list of 100 sequences of digits, like phone numbers or social-security numbers. The lists were arranged so that each digit occurs ten times in each position in the list, with each digit-pair occurring once spanning each pair of positions in the sequence. We then graphed the average duration of each digit in each position. This shows a sort of durational profile representing the local modulation of speaking-rate: the shape of a spoken phrase.

Each student used his or her own native language, and so in addition to English, we had Chinese, Spanish, and a number of other languages including Japanese. We could then compare across languages -- and across phonetic categories and syllable types -- how much modulation of duration was produced. In that year's data, as I recall, Chinese had the most contextual modulation of duration, and Japanese the least -- by far. This was especially striking because some of the digits are essentially the same, the Japanese digit-names having been borrowed from Chinese.

When we discussed this in class, the Japanese participant -- a young woman -- explained that this might not mean that Japanese had less final lengthening in general. She said that she perceived elongation of final syllables as a marker of young women's speech in informal settings, and that she had therefore consciously minimized this feature in her own reading of the digit sequences. But she didn't present the elongation feature as "coquettish", i.e. flirtatious: the example that she used was two high-school girls talking together. (This anecdote is in itself no more reliable than Rusling's offhand characterization. I haven't been able to find any sociolinguistic studies of this phenomenon -- if you know more about it, please tell me. )

Rusling cites a number of other female-associated features:

Because the Japanese tend to avoid any form of confrontation, my girlfriend would never correct me. That is, until one day in an ice-cream shop when she couldn't take it anymore. She snapped, "Don't say it that way – you sound like a girl!" referring to my choice of words to describe the ice cream we were sharing.

I didn't mind being corrected on my pronunciation. But I was disappointed to learn that for the past 2-1/2 years, I had not been speaking good Japanese.

Suddenly, she fired off a list of the mistakes I had apparently made umpteen times. She said her friends had often snickered when I referred to myself in the third person, as many Japanese women and girls do, and when they heard me end sentences with the particle "wa," which is usually used by women to soften the tone of a sentence. Most of all, she said, I needed to take the pitch of my voice down several notches from the tone I had learned.

Final particles aside, it's a little surprising that Rusling never realized that women have higher-pitched voices than men do, and that exaggerating the difference is a way of explicitly drawing attention to sexual identity -- this general pattern is hardly unique to Japanese.

As for the choice of final particles and so on, it's also suprising that Rusling didn't notice the sections in textbooks that comment on the stereotypical gender associations. It's a matter of some controversy how these differences should be portrayed -- thus Meryl Siegal and Shigeko Okamoto, "Toward Reconceptualizing the Teaching and Learning of Gendered Speech Styles in Japanese as a Foreign Language". Japanese Language and Literature, 37(1): 49-66, 2003:

... the actual speech of Japanese men and women often diverges from these gender "norms." For example. many women, including younger women and speakers of regional dialects, do not use many of the "female" forms given in these textbooks ... Furthermore, they widely use many of the "male" forms ...

Likewise, men also use many of the female forms, such as no, na no, and plain forms of verbs and adjectives, while the uses of such male forms as kui, dui, zo, and ze are situationally restricted

I guess it's possible that Rusling was exposed only to politically-corrected textbooks that pretend that the stereotypical gender differences don't exist, but my impression is that there are no texts of this kind. There don't seem to have been any in 2003: Seigal and Okamoto surveyed "seven popular textbooks as representative of the texts used in Japanese language classrooms in the United States", and found that these texts "portray stereotypcial images of Japanese men and women" and "emphasize the gender differences in speech patterns, referring to male/female differential uses of a number of linguistic features, such as sentence-final particles, honorifics, and self-reference and address terminology".

Things have become more complicated recently, I think, because some of the traditionally gendered features of Japanese speech are dying out or coming to be used both by men and women, while other new features associated with particular groups -- especially young women -- are spreading.

It's easy to see how the situation that Rusling describes can arise -- the son of a Japanese colleague who was raised in the U.S. once told me that when he visited Japan, he was told that he spoke "lady Japanese", because he had learned Japanese mostly from talking with his mother. Still, given that Rusling learned his basic Japanese not from his girlfriend but in language classes, I suspect that the gender-associations of some of the features that he cites should not have come as such a surprise to him.

For more, see Cindi Sturtz Streetharan ("Students, sarariiman and seniors: Japanese men's use of 'manly' speech registers", Language in Society 33:81-107; and Shizuka Lauwereyns, "Hedges in Japanese conversation: The influence of age, sex, and formality", Language Variation and Change 12:239-259 (2002).

[Update -- commenting on the pitch range issue, Randy Alexander (AKA LanDi Liu) writes:

Come on, that's a little below the belt! I'm 100% sure that he's factoring in a male-female difference of about an octave. His girlfriend meant that he was talking too high in his range. I think if you listen to a few Japanese people having a conversation in Japanese, you might notice that the women talk higher in their range than the men do. But I don't get the impression that people do that (exaggerating the difference in voice range between sexes -- men speaking lower in their range and women speaking higher) in most languages, certainly not in English or Chinese. I think it's a notable feature of Japanese; one that men especially need to be careful about when studying it as a foreign language.

This may be more common in Japanese culture than elsewhere, but there are certainly contexts in American life where sex differences in pitch range are exaggerated for effect. And I have the impression (unsupported by any systematic measurements) that British women of a certain class use an unexpectedly high pitch range, though (like many of my other opinions about British linguistic culture) this may be the result of excessive exposure to Monty Python skits.

Anyhow, it does seem naive to me for someone spending a year or more in Japan to remain unaware of the gender associations of pitching one's voice higher or lower, since (whatever the ethnographic details) the basic association is an entirely natural one. ]

[Richard Gabbert also comes to Rusling's defense:

A friend sent me a link today to your blog entry on gender stereotyping in Japanese, and I must say that I sympathize completely with Rusling. I lived and worked in Japan for most of the nineties and spent much of my time in an all-Japanese environment. I speak and read the language well, but I have constantly struggled with the very issues Rusling describes in his article. Most of my colleagues were women, and my Japanese teacher was female, and my speech patterns inevitably mimicked those of the people with whom I spent most of my day.

Your criticism of Rusling--if I understand it correctly--seems rather naïve. I mean, it's one thing to have a textbook understanding of language norms; it's quite another to (1) be able to conform to those in daily speech and (2) recognize how one's deviations from those norms affects native speakers' perceptions of one's character, personality, and intelligence. I never used textbooks with any regularity, but I was well aware of the gender-specific conventions of speech that still prevail--even if less so than in the past--in day-to-day conversation. That awareness, however, did not (and still does not) make conforming my speech to the patterns expected of male speakers any easier; with sufficient effort, I can avoid stereotypically female usages during a business meeting, but it's incredibly difficult over a sustained period of time. In fact, one of the reasons I finally gave up speaking to my (Japanese) wife in Japanese was that she found my speech mannerisms too effeminate and eventually--after a couple of years of marriage--told me that those mannerisms lessened her respect for me. Only toward the end of my eight years there did I finally achieve the level of competence in the language--and the familiarity with its idioms and nuances--that allowed me to appreciate just how jarring and childish my own speech often sounds.

In sum, my experience of learning a foreign language is that we model the language of those we interact with on a daily basis; indeed, assuming that one's learnings from a language textbook can trump one's daily experiences with the language reflects a misunderstanding of how most people learn language. (My grandmother, if asked, would readily acknowledge that the third person past plural form of "to be" is "were," but that does not prevent her from using the form that apparently predominated in her childhood home: "They was . . . ") One can be beat over the head with the warning that certain expressions will make one sound unintelligent or inappropriately effeminate (or masculine), but until one begins to hear the language with the ears of a native speaker, that reality seldom hits home (particularly where the people one speaks with on a daily basis all use those forms of speech).

I don't find anything in this to disagree with. My observation about Rusling was not that he had trouble sorting out the gender associations of various phonetic, phonological and morphological features of Japanese -- these are clearly complex and situation-dependent. Nor was I surprised that he tended to accomodate to the speech patterns of the women he mostly spoke with, especially his girlfriend. What surprised me was the implication that the very existence of gender-associated speech patterns in Japanese was an unexpected discovery for him. But perhaps that's just the consequences of the newspaper-article format -- and it might even have come as a result of changes made by an editor at CSM.]

[Karen Kay writes:

This was something I read about when I was a grad student at Yale. Haskins had all the issues of the... shoot, it's been 20 years. Journal of Logopedics and Phoniatrics. Something like that. It's a Japanese phonetics journal, or was. One of the studies in there indicated that Japanese women's voices are higher than American women's voices, and Japanese men's voices are lower than American men's voices. AFAIK, it's not actually a matter of different structure, it's cultural. My voice is higher when I speak Japanese. When John Wayne's voice is dubbed into Japanese, he sounds like Barry White instead of John Wayne because that's his cultural image. This is one of the things I taught when I taught Japanese language, pitching your voice higher or lower.

I think that Karen may be referring to the Annual Bulletin of the Research Institute of Logopedics and Phoniatrics, at the University of Tokyo, but a quick scan of the titles over the years through 1997 doesn't turn up any work on sex differences in pitch. However, checking Google Scholar for {Japanese male female pitch} does turn up Leo Loveday, "Pitch, Politeness and Sexual Role: An Exploratory Investigation into the Pitch Correlates of English and Japanese Politeness Formulae", Language and Speech, 24(1): 71-89 (1981).]

[Laura Ahearn writes:

While it is not exactly the kind of work you were looking for, one book-length work that immediately popped into my mind as I read your post on "The Perils of Mixing Romance with Language Learning" was the ethnography by Miyako Inoue, a linguistic anthropologist (note: she is a linguistic anthropologist, *not* a sociolinguist) at Stanford. Inoue's book, entitled, Vicarious Language: Gender and Linguistic Modernity in Japan (Univ. of California Press, 2006), analyzes the contemporary and historical linguistic practices and language ideologies surrounding "women's language" in Japan. Here is what the blurb says about her book:

"This highly original study provides an entirely new critical perspective on the central importance of ideas about language in the reproduction of gender, class, and race divisions in modern Japan. Focusing on a phenomenon commonly called "women's language," in modern Japanese society, Miyako Inoue considers the history and social effects of this language form. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in a contemporary Tokyo corporation to study the everyday linguistic experience of white-collar females office workers and on historical research from the late nineteenth century to 1930, she calls into question the claim that "women's language" is a Japanese cultural tradition of ancient origin and offers a critical geneaology showing the extent to which this language form is, in fact, a cultural construct linked with Japan's national and capitalist modernity. Her theoretically sophisticated, empirically grounded, interdisciplinary work brilliantly illuminates the relationship between culture and language, the nature of power and subject formation in modernity, and how the complex nexus of gender, language, and political economy are experienced in everyday life."

This book might not help male language learners seeking to speak Japanese in a "gender-appropriate" way, but it does address the broader social, cultural, and historical issues influencing ideas about language and gender in Japan.

I see that the same author has written " Gender, Language, and Modernity: Toward an Effective History of Japanese Women's Language", American Ethnologist 29(2): 392-422 (May 2002).]

[A reader, self-described as bilingual in Japanese and English, writes:

The description you have from the young Japanese participant is accurate, and I would expect a young female to sound "neutral" in such a controlled situation as you described with the survey.

"Flirty" is definitely an oversimplification: Female patterns of speech are strongest in the most casual and familiar situations, just like you would expect from any young female English speaker. There are other related "ways of speaking" for every female character description in Japanese, but to me it has always felt equal to but slightly exaggerated and more systematic than the same trends in English and other languages.

In a very casual situation (i.e. talking to close friends, brothers and sisters, school mates, generally people on the "inside" of their circle that they feel comfortable talking casually with) girls will extend the final vowels on a number of words with grammatical functions (things like "but", "because", "well", "anyways"), as well as tense marking particles and sentence final particles.

There is a stereotype in American English of girlish emphasis on various interjections and intensifiers, but I'm not familiar with any English female-associated pattern of exaggerated final lengthening. But maybe the difference is that the functional particles in Japanese tend to come word- or phrase-finally. I don't know of any studies of this phenomenon -- if you do, please tell me.]

[Ray Girvan draws our attention to this humorous account of the travails of American students trying to learn Japanese, which includes this observation:

Politeness depends on many things, such as age of the speaker, age of the person being spoken to, time of day, zodiac sign, blood type, sex, whether they are Grass or Rock Pokemon type, color of pants, and so on. For an example of Politeness Levels in action, see the example below.

Japanese Teacher: Good morning, Harry.
Harry: Good Morning.
Japanese Classmates: (gasps of horror and shock)

The bottom line is that Politeness Levels are completely beyond your understanding, so don't even try. Just resign yourself to talking like a little girl for the rest of your life and hope to God that no one beats you up.


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 7, 2007 07:40 AM