Changing Tongues

June 26, 2012 By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

NEW YORK — My son is on an English language high.

After 10 months at a U.S. boarding school, it’s as if the Japanese words stored in his brain have been replaced with English ones that flow forth freely every time he opens his mouth. “My legs feel much better than yesterday,” he says to me in perfect English as we walk to soccer camp. “I’m building up more muscle.”

His voice is slightly louder and he talks much more than he did in Japanese. Sometimes he experiments with a new phrase, and he is careful to get the American pronunciation right to the degree that it can sound exaggerated. “Give me a clue,” he says when we play Twenty Questions, emphasizing that recent addition to his vocabulary and stressing the “l,” which requires a tongue position difficult for Japanese. He seems to be listening to himself as he speaks, savoring this newfound power. He likes what he hears.

So do I. One of the reasons I sent my son from Tokyo to the United States was to master English. He was 12 years old, the age that many scholars say is the cut-off point to become a native speaker in a second language. In less than a year in the total immersion setting of boarding school, I would say he is on his way.

Initially, when I would phone him at school to find out how he was doing, he would reply in Japanese, saying things like betsu ni (nothing much) or iine (sounds good). Now I get the equivalent of those one-phrase replies in the teen English of “just chillin”‘ or “that’s sick.”

Watching my son absorb a second language reminds me of how I learned English. From age one to eight, I lived in England. Japanese was my first language as it was spoken at home, but English soon took over after I began attending a local school. Then, back to Tokyo, where Japanese replaced my English. We moved to the U.S. when I was 11. I remember my early days at an elementary school in Seattle, feeling stupid and muzzled.

“Patrol,” I was trying to say to a girl sitting next to me on the school bus in fifth grade. I wanted to ask her about our patrol duties. It was probably coming out like “patorole” since my Japanese tongue was not used to blended consonants. “Try again,” she kept saying as we went back and forth.

I’m still touched by her patience that eventually led to an understanding and friendship. I learned that Americans often cannot understand you unless your pronunciation is perfect. Maybe that is why my son is so diligent about articulation, stretching out the first vowels when he says, “awesome” or “awkward.”

I recently witnessed the kind of improvisation my son must be doing as he navigates his way through English. We were walking down a street with my nephew who said to him, “I’m going to keep punching you until you touch a lampshade.” My son ran ahead, enduring playful pummels along the way, and appeared to grab the lid of a garbage bin. We all laughed, assuming he thought a lampshade was a trash can. But my son explained that just beneath the handle of the lid was the shadow of the street light; the shade of a lamp.

In my childhood summer, a few months after we moved to the U.S., I remember the strange and exciting sensation of recalling a language. I woke up one morning, and lying in bed realized that I could recite complete sentences in English in my mind. Like my son today, the words had begun streaming out.

People say I seem like a different person when I am speaking English, more confident and assertive than when I use Japanese. It probably has to do with the language (English is more direct), the accompanying body-language and the stereotyped perceptions associated with the cultures. My son, too, appears more outgoing and gregarious in his newly acquired tongue.

“Grinding my gears,” he said, smiling, one morning. “Do you know what that means?”

Unaware that he already knew the phrase from its usage in the TV show “Family Guy,” which offers delicious new words for him through its risqué dialogue, I offered an educated guess.

“Since that would be an unpleasant sound, I would think it means something you don’t like,” I said.

Happy to use another favorite phrase, he replied that I was stating the obvious: “No. Duh.”