It’s common to hear Anglophone expats joke about how their English has gotten worse while living in Japan. It seems a rather silly notion, and certainly based on the criterion of simple grammatical accuracy, their native English proficiency likely remains unchanged. However, research has shown that the acquisition of a second language can affect one’s first language in a few ways. Our grammaticality judgements of ambiguous first language sentences can be influenced by our acquisition of second language grammar. For example, if I encountered the sentence “Joe drank the medicine,” I might have less of a problem with it than an English speaker, since in Japanese you use the verb for “drink” with all types of medicine – both solid and liquid. A monolingual English speaker might either want the sentence to be clarified by more detail, or by the use of the more generally applicable verb “take.” It is likely that the sentence will be more acceptable to a native English speaker with Japanese as a second language.
Personally, I find myself topicalizing sentences a lot more in English than seems normal, probably because Japanese is a language that frequently topicalizes the “main idea” of a sentence. For example, I might say “The bank over there, I went there yesterday” instead of the more natural “I went to that bank yesterday.” And considering that sometimes I cannot recall utterly ordinary words, or find myself saying incredibly odd things to friends and family.
Well, it seems that it goes in the other direction, too. On a trip back to the US this spring, I found myself constantly enraptured and drawn in by the ordinary conversations surrounding me. I could understand everything people were saying, but what they were saying and how they were saying it seemed new and shiny to me, like you feel when you’re in a completely foreign place. The juxtaposed feelings of being once again “home” in your native language, and being shocked by the newness of that language conspired to create a surreal kind of anomie.
It was so strange, in fact, that I took notes on what I was hearing. I wrote them down verbatim. I still think they are fascinating:
TSA ID checker guy
“Well that used to be a winery. And there was a grove of apricot trees before that.”
Frizzy hair girl on jetway boarding plane:
“…And I’m so terrified of people watching me in the freezer.”
Delta flight attendant:
“Would you care for a choice of peanuts pretzels or cookies?”
Guy on his cellphone in downtown Boston:
“Yeah I just wanna travel I wanna do some shit.”
Lady on her cellphone in downtown Boston:
“Yeah you know Sally has wanted to meet up. And she saw the thing. You know who she is. I think uh, I think she’s like a million miles a minute.”
Guy on the Boston T, mumbling into a headphone mic:
“What do you think? Do we have a solution to this or do we have to do some deeper thought?”
Little girl In Brooklyn:
“My BMX, my decision!”
Older man on the street in NY, talking to a woman in front of a supermarket:
“This stuff won’t kill you; What’s in there will fuck you.”