So earlier this morning (Feb 5), I followed a friend’s link to the Daily Mail’s online article citing a psych study on the correlation between cognitive ability and political views. Essentially, people who can’t abstract that well, can’t consider other people’s perspectives as well, which translates to being unable to relate to people who are different from them (whether by sex, race, or sexual orientation). And the afternoon before, I had had a discussion with some Japanese friends about what famous personalities of Japan are known in Canada (or vice versa), which highlighted the idea of “stereotypical faces” in my head.

The trouble is, stereotypes don’t actually have faces for this reason; a face implies an individual (and also a personal experience). And because I’ve had ample exposure to Japanese culture, I don’t really remember the cultural veil that separates Canada and Japan. After thinking about it some more though, the most famous “Japanese” are probably people of Japanese descent, born/raised in the West (e.g. David Suzuki, Pat Morita, Kazuo Ishiguro). Otherwise, it’s probably people like the contemporary author Haruki Murakami, and maybe Yoko Ono, or the fictitious Mr Miyagi. Ken Watanabe, if they’d seen The Last Samurai. Oda Nobunaga, if they’d played the Onimusha series of video games. Emperor Hirohito, if you really want to dredge up unpleasant war talk. (Incidentally, the famous Canadians are unknown in Japan, because the ones who “make it” end up in Hollywood, and are seen as being American.)

So where’s the linguistics angle in this story? Well, during the actual conversation, I’d forgotten the word “stereotype” (in either English or Japanese), which left it to my Japanese interlocutors to supply the word (how embarrassing!). This is an example of what linguists call temporary disfluency. And for the record, it seems that the common Japanese word for “stereotype” is loaned from English: “sutereotaipu” (ステレオタイプ). The wider angle of the story is the difficulty in learning a second language. A large part of one’s ability to communicate in another language relies heavily on mutual cultural knowledge. That thesis has been expounded on to some length in the now-infamous internet essay “Why Chinese is so Damn Hard“.

Culture plays into ideology, and therefore the “natural” inferences from routine utterances. A simple “yes” is legally binding in English, but it’s only an acknowledgement of having heard the speaker in Japanese. (Of course I know that’s not strictly true, but it’s more true than it is false …if you can imagine such a thing as fractional reality.) Knowing that sarcasm from females doesn’t translate well in Japanese is important to know when one tries to make friends. But more than that (at least for me), it serves as a motivator to continue studying the language to learn more about the interesting historical characters and events (like the whatever period with the whatever battle of wherever, where whoever and whoever else were betrayed by whomever).

Put another way, the ones who possibly have the best hopes of communicating in another language are the ones that have the weakest conceptions of cultural stereotypes, but at the same time, are also knowledgeable on popular cultural tropes. (Admittedly, I’d agree that there’s a fine line between “stereotype” and “popular trope”.) I’ve talked about it before, but it still remains true: true bilingualism requires biculturalism as well.

[edit] …More recently (May 12), I encountered a more literary brand of temporary disfluency, where I failed to correctly recall two big names in English Literature: Christopher Marlowe, and Herman Melville. For the former, I knew he was an English playright and Shakespeare contemporary, who wrote “The Tragical Life of Doctor Faustus” a century before Goethe’s efforts. But all I could recall of his name was “Christopher M—“. Marlbourgh? Malone? Mallard? Mallory? Melville’s case was even worse, because it was in a crossword, and I knew it had to be Mel—–. Even after getting the [v] for “MELV—-“, I was still blanking. Melvingh? Melvrose? Thankfully, I was able to shout out “Melville” milliseconds before my turtoise-grade internet loaded the wikipedia page for Moby Dick. It’s always the small things, eh?

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