Misleading "native" English advice compounds one's language insecurities

For the past five years, I’ve used an app called Smartnews to keep up to date with news on Japan while on the go. Lately, however, the app has been dishing up some truly trashy articles through its algorithms. This article I came across about English phrases that gaikokujin don’t use was so awful that I feel compelled to write about it.

This article was written by an anonymous Writer S, who once worked as an assistant at a foreign-funded media company (“元外資系メディアでアシスタントをした経験のあるライターS”), based on her experience being in a workplace filled with gaikokujin (“体験した外国人だらけの職場で思い知った「言ったら恥ずかしい英語」をシェアします”).

Leaving aside the fact that a gaishikei company doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone working there who isn’t born in Japan comes from an English-speaking country, that the workplace language is English, or that an anonymous assistant who worked at an anonymous gaishikei media company should even be a credible authority for what native English speakers say, let’s take a look at the five tips that this Writer S gives us.

The first tip is that you’re not supposed to say “oh my god” in public places. After Writer S noticed that their gaikokujin colleagues would say “oh my gosh” rather than “oh my god”, Writer S wondered why. According to Google, Writer S tells us, it might be sacrilegious to say His name in vain when things happen.

Fair enough. But I would argue that in a workplace environment, it’s generally rude to yell “oh my god” arbitrarily. And your colleagues wouldn’t yell anyway—unless they are constantly tripping on floors, spilling coffee on each other, or winning the lottery.

Writer S also thinks that the subtitles “オーマイガー!” on the English-language movies and TV shows they see actually refers to “oh my gosh” or “oh my goodness”. I’m not sure whether this is a logical conjecture to make. If Hollywood can make silly dramas about cardinals burning themselves in the Vatican City, then whether something is sacrilegious is probably irrelevant for most movies and TV shows nowadays.

The second tip is that you’re not supposed to say “just a moment”. Writer S and their friend was watching a variety program on TV. Some gaikokujin told a Japanese police officer that he “was only parking his bike for two seconds” and Writer S and their friend laughed at the subtitles which translated the sentence literally.

But I don’t really see how this variety program anecdote is relevant to why you can’t say “just a moment” in the context of going away and coming back in a really short time interval, i.e. “I’ll be back in a just a moment“. That phrase sounds pretty natural to me.

The third tip is that you’re supposed to say “you know” rather than “well” as a filler in conversation. Writer S says that you’re not meant to take the “know” in “you know” literally.

The problem with this tip is that a liberal application of “you know” makes everyday conversation appear awkward, forced, and nervous. Most awkward, forced, and nervous conversations happen with strangers with whom you make small talk with at adult social events to pass the time, further impeding any organic acquaintanceship from developing.

The forth step is that you should say “I gut it” rather than “I understand”.

But I don’t understand. What is it that you’re trying to gut? My stomach, which hurt profusely because I couldn’t stop laughing from this stoic, uncorrected typo? Writer S’ suffocating pretentiousness? The variety program producers who can’t stop making fun of nihonjin for being unable to talk to strangers on the street in English?

How can you expect anyone to be ‘native’ in the English language when all you do is to produce an article that is actually a masterclass is writing something in Japanese with the most arrogant flourishes. For example:

  • やっぱり、だーれも「Oh my god」とは言わない。
  • その代わりネイティブ「I gut it!」を使って会話します。
  • 「My name is ●●」は子供っぽい?

I’m not even going to bother with the fifth tip. Because if Writer S can’t even probably introduce who they are themselves, then who is Writer S to tell us that starting off your introduction with “My name is…” is childish?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being earnest about improving your language skills, especially if you don’t have the privilege to travel, study abroad, or buy expensive language textbooks. My Japanese friends have helped me with my Japanese. I’ve tried to do the same with their English.

And there’s also nothing inherently wrong with reading articles for language advice, or with writing articles to give other people language advice.

But even if the advice isn’t correct, the greater sin that this article commits it to put “native” English on a pedestal, and to further the insecurity that being a “native” English speaker isn’t something that any nihonjin can achieve. And that insecurity is what people like Writer S thrive off of to write awful web articles like these, and what companies like IELTS, TOEFL, EF, and Cambridge English profit from to force millions of people to believe that they can only succeed in their professional lives by proficiently communicating with people in the Anglophone world.

Or, as this random LINE blogger, Ken Mogi, succinctly states:

日本語の文化と英語の文化の接点では、どっちが上とか、そういうことではなく、実質的におもしろい、人間に寄り添った対話をこそしたい。日本人の中でお互いに英語の正しさをチェックする文法ポリス、発音ポリスも最悪だが、ネイティヴ話者によるえらそーな能書きは、さらに邪悪なものの気配を感じる。

When Japanophone and Anglophone cultures cross paths, the point is not to see which culture is better than the other. I would prefer that we have substantial, interesting, and down-to-earth discussions about this intersection of cultures. I really hate Japanese people who act as grammar police and pronunciation police who check each other’s English, but I feel an especially wicked aura from native speakers who arrogantly preach about their own language virtues.