Japanese and English Bilingual Seminars and Workshops

Sayaka Chatani, Hiro Fujimoto, and Maho Ikeda are starting a new bilingual Japanese and English research exchange seminar series. The first of these is coming up on 18 May: an online manuscript workshop featuring a manuscript workshop with Yuri Ōkubo, “Ambivalent Aspirations: Okinawan Collaboration with the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. You can register for this Zoom event online here.

As Sayaka, who was one of our early Frog in a Well members, puts it, “Use Japanese or English, whichever you feel more comfortable speaking in, to participate.” I find this to be a really exciting new initiative that I hope will really take off.1   This kind of multilingual spirit is similar to the one Frog in a Well was founded on back in 2004 (see our first post here). As a starting PhD student, I had hoped to develop an online space where scholars studying Japan, China, and Korean, across several humanities disciplines could post in either English or, for each of three blogs, Japanese, Chinese, or Korean. It didn’t work out that way, mostly due to my own failure to build up and sustain a community of posting graduate students and academics writing in languages other than English.

I have, however, seen great examples of the kinds of events Sayaka describes: truly multilingual spaces for academic exchange around the study of East Asian history. In Japan, I have really enjoyed being part of some small workshops that had both Chinese and Japanese languages as their working languages. In Taiwan, I have enjoyed some roundtables and talks that were bilingual Chinese and English. In Korea, I’ve been to both a Korean-Japanese bilingual workshop and a Korean-Chinese bilingual conference, and numerous events where Korean and English mixed. When they work well, the more free flowing discussion sessions often include lots of code-switching as technical terms and phrases are dropped in with the other language or a switch of language can heighten dramatic emphasis.

The place I have seen the most reluctance to try things like this is the United States – the world’s heart of English language chauvinism. There are certainly exceptions, including some wonderful Japanese studies workshops organised by Carol Gluck at Columbia University over the years. Unlike the fully bilingual events I have experienced in East Asia, these also usually included at least some sequential translation or summaries, especially during open discussion sessions. I think these Columbia workshops were easily the most stimulating academic exchanges I witnessed during my years as a student in the US.

When I have proposed such events myself, or lamented their absence, I’ve sometimes been told that these kinds of bilingual events are exclusionary. I find such responses bewildering. As if, by making an event that is primarily targeting a highly specialized group of experts English only, we are somehow being more inclusive? I think there are two ways to respond to this.

1) The first is what we might call the 最起碼的要求 or “minimum requirement” argument for scholars of East Asia. I don’t think it is an unreasonable expectation for scholars of Japanese history, for example, to know Japanese, as a bare minimum. The Chinese version of this phrase pops into my mind because I can hear the voice of a Chinese student I overheard many years ago commenting to a friend after someone asked whether an upcoming Japanese language roundtable, in Japan, on Japanese colonialism, would include English translation for the benefit of a few foreign students in the audience. Simply put: if you are going to study and publish about the region, learn the relevant language. At the very least be able to read and understand it, even if you are uncomfortable in presenting or publishing in it. Yup, it’s hard. Nope, I don’t want to hear your excuses. What’s that you say? You only understand 75% of what is said in the relevant language when those academics start talking back and forth at a rapid fire pace?

2) This brings me nicely to the second response, which we might refer to as the “Welcome to the fucking party” argument, or without the profanity, the problem of forgotten exclusion. At most international conferences, but to be honest, pretty much any event at a large international institution, your audience is likely to include non-native speakers of English. They may be really fantastic at English. You might never have heard them make an error, and their writing may only occasionally give away the fact that they worked damn hard for many years to master the maddening English language on top of their own. However, many of these participants won’t necessarily catch everything speakers say during talks, and they may have just a bit less willingness to join the fray in discussion if they have to produce polished academic speech on the fly. They may be unfamiliar with particular accents or idiomatic phrases. Their understanding may struggle more when the exchange speeds up in open discussion sessions. They may drift off for a minute only to discover that the loss of context makes it hard to follow the discussion when they re-focus. Their heads may start to pound after prolonged concentration and they may be less confident their fluency in their non-native language will hold up when fatigued.

If these things sound familiar to native English speakers then it is likely that you have experienced something similar in another language you are otherwise confident in, and it should be easier for you to flip the board and view things from the other side. These facts don’t change just because English is some kind of academic lingua franca. By making a specialist event bilingual, choosing a second language that everyone should know given the content/context of a particular event (of course, I’m not claiming general interest events need to do this – context matters), and giving people the freedom to speak the language they feel most comfortable in throughout, you take a serious step taken towards levelling the playing field. The outcome is never 100% mutual understanding and perfect dialogic utopia. A bilingual environment is one in which everyone except the native bilingual participants has to struggle at least a little bit. In that shared struggle is born a kind of mutual compassion that produces the best kind of academic exchange.

  1. I see there is another bilingual event coming in 1 June, with a “new books from Japan” series『医学とキリスト教 日本におけるアメリカ・プロテスタントの医療宣教』by 藤本大士. Register here. Both of these events are through the recently founded Modern Japan History Association.  

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.