Thoughts from a recent trip to Japan:
A couple of days after arriving in Tokyo I took a taxi from our hotel to Ueno Park, about a half hour drive. I was reminded of the Shaun Tan masterpiece The Arrival. All the signs around were in Japanese and the modern feel of the place put me straight into a world reminiscent of Blade Runner and other futuristic sci-fi settings. Tokyo doesn’t have flying cars or apparent androids but it’s a city like no other I’ve visited before. The first time I read The Arrival I had an inkling of what it might be like to be in a place that uses a language you are completely unfamiliar with. The protagonist arrives in this city to escape a threat in his homeland. He is hoping to bring his wife and his daughter with him once he is set up. There are no words in this story but you can identify what passes for written language. You can identify signs and labels without knowing what they say. This highlights for me that you only learn to read once, and that once you are able to see abstract symbols standing in for concrete and abstract words, you can recognize what is script in foreign languages. The dizzying feeling of my first reading of the book never came back, and as a native English speaker it’s rare I’ve felt that way since. No matter where I go I can expect that someone will have at least a smattering of English. Riding in the taxi I wasn’t completely at sea as street signs often use English as well as Japanese, some ads have English words in them, and inside the taxi there is information in English. Most taxi drivers we met spoke only a small amount of English but we had place names written in Japanese to help with directions and hotel staff also helped translate when needed. Inside all taxis there is a ‘point and (something)’ sheet. Anyone travelling to Japan from elsewhere needs some English to get by. There were a couple of people we met in shops who were native French speakers and one who was a native Brazilian/Portuguese speaker, but they all spoke English too. The day tours we went on were all conducted in English. When I googled English monolingualism I came across this article regarding English as a lingua franca. It’s a quick and interesting read that gathers quotes from elsewhere so I’m not able to synthesize the points raised. There is no doubt English is useful for any travellers, but native English speakers benefit so much from learning even a few words in another language as it truly opens up the heart and soul. It helps you see the world through different eyes. Science fiction and speculative fiction stories also open up hearts and minds to a different reality. This is why I enjoy reading them so much. The next time I visit Tokyo I’ll be on the lookout for more experiences like the one in the taxi. I know it’s tricky to truly get lost, and to be in an unforeseen locale, but if it’s going to happen, there is no better place than Japan.