Even a Pen Can Speak with an Accent

As anyone who has tried to master a second language can tell you, one of the biggest challenges is to lose your accent and sound like a native speaker — arguably, native-like pronunciation does even more to provide a first impression of proficiency than fluency of expressing ideas, fairly or not. Indeed, the word “shibboleth” — meaning an explicit indicator of in-group status — comes from a Hebrew word used to identify belonging by simple virtue of being difficult to pronounce. Historically, these shibboleths and other demonstrations of in-group status have varied significantly in importance: the results can be anything from not being automatically offered the foreign-language menu at a restaurant to, in some cases, literal survival.

Obviously, in my lifestyle, the former is the much more common variety encountered, and much of it is more a matter of simply learning ways to sound less “foreign,” in order to reduce cognitive burden on others and to avoid simply sticking out as being “unusual,” even in subtle ways.

Interestingly, my first exposure to the idea of having an “accent” that would out one’s status as a non-native speaker of a language came at the age of thirteen or so, during a middle school German class. We learned that, if we were to write our ones and sevens the standard English way, they would look, at a bare minimum, “odd” to native speakers:

I think we can all agree that the difference between ‘one’ and ‘seven’ is overstated anyway.

While a German speaker seeing an English-style “1” might find it a little unusual-looking, but would probably figure out what was intended, the English-style “7” would almost certainly be misread in isolation as a “1” written hastily at a bit of an angle. You may think the German “1” here looks a bit exaggerated, but if anything, I’ve demonstrated restraint — I’ve seen cases where the diagonal bit extends basically all the way down to the baseline. It is presumably due to the influence of German (especially in the US, and especially in my home state of Pennsylvania, which is full of road signs with German and Dutch last names on them) that the German-style “7” is also used in English at least semi-commonly.

On the other hand, Japan has its own way of making sevens a bit more visually distinct: a long serif is ordinarily added, making it look a lot like how ク is ordinarily handwritten. In this case, there’s no real ambiguity being resolved; the English-style “7” would be readily understood, even if, in practice, virtually everybody in Japan writes it with that serif.

Interestingly, your pen can give you away as a non-native speaker in Japanese, even without writing a single word.

Even this example looks like the Arrested Development logo. Or maybe a coupon.

It’s subtle, yes, but somehow, the English-speaking world learns at some point that you circle things by starting at 12:00 or 1:00 and going around counter-clockwise (almost certainly because that’s how the letter “o” is written, at least prescriptively in things like Palmer Method cursive), whereas Japan learns that you circle things by starting at 4:00 or 5:00 and going around clockwise, possibly due to the cultural influence of the enso.

Once you’re aware of this, it’s hard to miss in popular culture: an entire generation of western gamers has no doubt grown up wondering why video games depict things circled in a “handwritten” manner look kind of like a 9. Or perhaps that was just me. On the other hand, you have stuff like the logo for the TV show Arrested Development, which is admittedly not particularly well known in Japan, possibly because any attempt to translate or localize a comedy so heavily dependent on multi-layered English wordplay would be so self-evidently hopeless as to inspire little more than a bleak, mirthless cackle.

Incidentally, at least as of some time ago, when I worked in a Japanese middle school, this “non-native writing” phenomenon worked both ways. Japanese students starting English are taught the alphabet, but presumably due to the influence of kanji and the fact that they each have a proper stroke order, as well as the fact that these strokes are, almost without exception, downward or to the right, students are often taught what would be, to many native English speakers, relatively “unnatural” looking ways to write certain letters.

Yes, I am aware that some native speakers write these letters differently. We’re talking about the big part of the bell curve, mainly.

The biggest and most obvious difference is the fact that, in English, there is more willingness to move the pen upward, either while writing (as in “A” and “N”) or as a general trending direction (as in “E” above). Obviously, the examples shown aren’t entirely universal, since there’s some variation in how English speakers write — the written language is, generally, not taught in as formally regimented a manner as Japanese traditionally is — but by no means do the “native” examples above look unusual or out of place.

Ultimately, these sorts of things aren’t too important in terms of everyday practicality, to be honest; in very few cases will you find yourself expressing yourself inaccurately or imprecisely because you circled something the wrong way. On the other hand, as with any other form of work to minimize your accent in a second language spoken or otherwise, there is a certain satisfaction that can come from attention to detail, adding a level of polish to go beyond merely “good enough” — even if the ultimate goal is to not be noticed.

A Surprising New Traditional Old Art Form

Japan has enough forms of traditional culture that, as an outsider, you eventually begin to simply get used to being exposed to entirely new fields you had never heard of. It’s another thing entirely to come across something that, apparently, even most Japanese people have never seen nor heard of.

Bonseki is a traditional art that I only found out about entirely by coincidence — an exhibition was being held in downtown Kyoto and I happened to walk by a rather striking display of white-on-black monochrome art.

The window display

The name bonseki literally means “tray stones,” and the name is apt — it uses lacquered trays as a base, upon which landscapes and other images are created using stones of every size, from fine sand sprinkled on and brushed around with feathers to large rocks placed by hand.

A demonstration of bonseki

According to the explanations given by the ladies present, who were showing off the art form and many examples of it, bonseki began as a way of producing drafts for Japanese rock gardens, using sand to represent raked gravel and larger rocks to represent the types of larger boulders often found in these rock gardens.

A dramatic use of larger stones for a sense of depth and realism

The techniques live on in relative obscurity — after all, how often do most of us design and plan rock gardens? — but the group continues to hold meetings with lessons like any other traditional art form, and the styles used and the works created with it have continued to evolve somewhat, though they are still ordinarily used for landscapes of various types.

Water made of sand, crashing up on rocks made of… rocks

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about these works of art came when I found myself asking, out of curiosity, whether any of them were for sale. I was told that, beyond merely being hard to maintain properly, it is, in fact, considered conventional to make no attempt whatsoever to preserve bonseki art for very long; rather, the norm is to simply brush away the sand and collect the rocks, much like their apparent cousin, the sand mandala.

A more contemporary sort of image

For that moment while they’re around, though, they certainly are spectacular.