Essays on English in Japan

Native speaker check!

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I can tell when the knock on my office door is not one of my regular students just by the sound. The knock will have a hesitant, unsure rhythm, followed by a long pause before the door opens quietly and I'll be asked to do something. Of the many requests from unknown students I receive after the door opens, most are reasonable and interesting, but the one I hate the most is: "Could you give this a native check?"


I still am not quite sure what “native check” means, or why it would be important, so it always confuses me when I get asked to do one. When people publish an important work in a serious publication, they want it to be perfect, but at universities, and certainly at most levels of language learning, no other country but Japan would expect absolute perfection in student papers.

Yet every year like clockwork, a little bit before the deadline for graduation papers and graduate school theses, I receive the same timid-voiced request from a couple unknown students. “Not this again,” I say to myself, and then take a big breath and offer them a chair.

Many of the students are eager to learn, so it is easy to work with them. They are cheerful and want to learn about writing. I like these students and never mind helping them. But others never really seem to know what they want, except for having a grammatically perfect paper. They feel they need their paper to pass through the hands of a real live foreign native speaker and, well, what? I don't know. Maybe I am supposed to give it a kind of native speaker “hanko,” I guess. Stamp it “Gaijin read!” and then, it will be OK.

This “native check” seems to be a custom from decades ago. Surely in the years after World War II, a native speaker must have seemed a very different creature from what they are now. Native speakers would have been phenomenal resources with the entire language stored in their foreign brains, special and rare. Nowadays, however, even a computer can check grammar and information on all aspects of language is just a click away on the Internet. If “native check” means “grammar check,” I hate the sinking feeling that I've been hired just for my native grammar and it is the main thing I contribute to my workplace.

Writing is the hardest skill to learn, and even good writers can get tangled up when writing a long piece of work. All students need help with writing, which can be a painfully difficult though interesting and meaningful process. Many students, though, do not really want writing help, they just want some superficial “native check” to ensure their grammar is perfect. In those cases, the “native check” seems to be a way of saving face, of making the surface grammar smooth regardless of the content, and regardless of the process of writing the paper.

Students who really want help never say, “Please give this a native check” but instead, their body language tends to cry out, “Please help me write!” They want to learn how a paper is formed, constructed and improved. They want to learn how to write and rewrite on their own, not just passively have someone’s red-pen corrections over their mistakes. Serious students know that writing takes a lot of time and effort, and know they must learn how to get more deeply into the ideas, opinions and internal structures of their writing. I never mind working on writing with a student who genuinely wants to write well on their own.

The “native check” students, though, just want their grammar to appear OK on the surface. Many professors who prod their students to get a “native check” maybe assume that everything is fine except for the grammar. Maybe, too, they assume writing a paper is just translation from Japanese. Maybe they are perfectionistic and want every grammar mistake to be removed from the paper. For these students, “native check” means “grammar check.” That is boring, meaningless work for me and superficial correctness for them. Worse, they learn nothing.

So after I read the paper, whether they like it or not, I tell the students they have to work on many things other than grammar—more important things. I talk about the structure and meanings, the ways of putting the ideas together more tightly. I explain how to re-organize and re-frame their ideas, and give them specific suggestions on how to check their own grammar by themselves, point by point. I do not want them dependent on me, but want them to be able to do it all on their own. At this point, a lot of the students never return. I guess they find someone else to native check their grammar. They can always pay some native speaker to check it after all.

The belief in the magical touch of a “native speaker” is a kind of denial that good writing comes from hard work and clear thinking. Instead, it is a kind of defeatist attitude that suggests that native speakers are a special category of person with a natural feeling and innate ability to know what is correct, while everyone else is doomed to fail. It is a form of laziness, too, that stays safely on the surface of grammar without being brave enough to dig into the difficult inner core of writing. It is a way of giving up at the end.

Are native speakers special? In some ways, yes, but an engaged, dynamic “near-native” speaker is better than a callous, uninterested native speaker any day. Japanese seem to believe in the myth of the native speaker much more than other countries would. Perhaps because of the common belief that Japan is a completely homogeneous culture, native speaker takes on special importance. Other countries have many languages mixed into the culture, so the very concept of native speaker seems nothing special. In Japan, however, native speakers are revered far beyond their true importance.

And that goes for Japanese native speakers as well. Most Japanese could never, ever imagine a foreigner learning Japanese well enough to write Japanese. But some do. The 2008 winner of the Akutagawa Prize, Yang Yi, was a native speaker of Chinese writing in Japanese. I wonder if she had a native speaker check for her stories?

The past sense of homogeneity is changing, however. Bilingualism, biculturalism, native speaker proficiency and other complex concepts better fit current realities. In an increasingly globalized world, where many people use several languages to different extents, the very concept of a native speaker’s importance is greatly diminished. The traditional focus in Japan on perfectionism and external form instead of internal content and productive process needs to be discarded and instead, new less-than-perfect concepts introduced and used to be productive.

What also often goes unspoken in this native speaker check charade is the belief that the really hard work of writing the paper was all done in Japanese. Many students work very hard on their writing entirely in English. To imagine that only a native speaker can really write in English is a way of denying the hard work that many non-native students really do, and do very, very well, all in English all on their own. What students need is a student check, a structure check, an idea check and whatever other kinds of checking can help to make their papers truly better.

 

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Michael is currently teaching at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan, in the American Literature section of the English Department. More information in the About Me page.