The above, which reads ‘watashi,’ means simply “I.” It took my colleague and I two weeks to appreciate this, and we have far from mastered its use. This, of course, is only “I” as expressed in Hiragana, one of Japan’s three written alphabets (the other two being Katakana and Kanji). But that is just the beginning. ‘Watashi’ is only one (gender neutral) way of referring to oneself. ‘Watakushi’ is a more formal (even arrogant) variation; ‘boku’ is a polite masculine form, ‘ore’ an aggressive masculine form (for tough guys). But it doesn’t stop there; atashi, uchi, kochira, ware, wagahai, oira, shessha, atai, yo, and warawa are all distinct ways of expressing “I” in Japanese, each with their own connotations and proper context.
As you can imagine, all of these possibilities leave my colleague and I asking: “Who am I?” Or, to relate it to our work at the UCWBL, who am I as a tutor, in the context of a multilingual partnership? Having experienced firsthand the internal frustration of trying to express oneself in contexts where literally no English is spoken, we can relate to the plight of ESL students who come to the Writing Center looking for help. With this learned empathy (and of course with every learned second language) comes many questions: If I share a non-English language with a student, would either of us benefit from its use, or should we stick to English? What is my role in addressing the student’s evident frustration working with English? How can I express my empathy in a productive, unifying way?
Recently, my colleague and I were opened up to tutoring and formed a team, jumping into the UCWbL’s conversation partners with a student from Saudi Arabia. The student’s English was conversationally advanced; in fact, my colleague pointed out that the corrections we made while conversing were “nit-picky,” an implicit marker of the student’s ability. We found over the course of our conversation that talking about the similarities and differences between Arabic, English, and French (each of us is familiar with two of the three) transmuted insecurities over lack of fluency into mutual vulnerability – however small – which became a sense of comfort for the student as much as it did for us. Perhaps this is what allowed the conversation to become more intimate, as the student began to detail the difficulties of finding and keeping American (or even “proper” English speaking) friends, a topic she clearly felt the need to vent about. In this case, our appreciation for the hardship of speaking a foreign tongue contributed to the success of our conversation. Who were we here? Primarily, we were compatriots, sharing common ground. It was partly because of this shared experience that we were able to better speak empathetically, offering both opinion and advice.
One of the things that struck us most about our experiences with languages and their relationship to tutoring was our realization that virtually all of the international students we encounter at the writing center are either learning or have mastered at least two languages. How many Americans can say that? How many Americans can even say they’ve tried? Foreign language programs in the United States are in a sad state. Language programs are spotty at best, and many are not mandatory. Worse still, those that aren’t mandatory are often neglected to the point of nonexistence. In a rapidly globalizing world (and especially faced with a stagnant domestic economy) our status as a developing country – at least in the context of language education – should be alarming. Languages provide us with tools to connect with others; new ways of relating to and interacting with the world; and yes, new ways of defining ourselves, and our relation to others. In the context of the tutor-writer relationship, this experience with language affords us the identity of empathetic listener. But more broadly, it transforms our thinking and enhances our connection to the rest of humanity in some small way. So, in short, let’s all get funky and learn another language.