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Boom goes the brain: to take or not to take... (poll)

September 19th, 2007 (10:47 pm)

current mood: contemplative

What do you consider to be a person's "native language"?

the first language they ever learned to speak
the first language they ever learned and maintained proficiency in
one's dominant language
other (please comment)

So, yeah. FSU and I were talking about whether I should take the JLPT or not in Dec. I'm thinking about taking it simply because I want to know where my reading comp is in terms of the test and I didn't start learning kanji until 6-7 years ago. But at the same time, the test isn't meant for "native speakers". Because of that, I've been spending most of tonight looking into what one's "native language" is and about basic language acquisition theory according to Wikipedia (hence the brain splatter all over the place here. >.<; )

As some people are aware, I'm second generation Japanese-Canadian. And as far as FSU and I have been able to guess (male parental won't say; perhaps he doesn't remember), I *probably* learned to speak Japanese first and English second. However, as a family, we pretty much always spoke English at home once all us kids were in school. (And for those who might be curious, my mom taught me hiragana and katakana when I was 8 or 9 and I managed to remember some of the hiragana characters (70-80%?) up until when I started actively trying to learn how to read (around 15 years later with the Ranma 1/2 manga series). Sadly, I didn't remember any katakana and had to use a kana chart when I first started reading. My kanji learning started ~6-7 years ago when I started wanting to read doujinshi and certain novels. (Most of my comprehension/vocab was picked up during the three years I lived in Japan ('97-'00). I spent a lot of time listening and trying to speak the language although I never actively studied the grammar. (I did try sitting in on one class on keigo and it went completely over my head.))) >.>

A bit of a dilemma as it's the same issue that kept me from taking the test last year as well. *sigh*


Posted by: Hybrid Paradox (yunaura)
Posted at: September 20th, 2007 01:19 am (UTC)

"The first language they ever learned and maintained proficiency in."

My first language was Viet, and I'm able to speak and understand it...but reading it and the more complex vocabulary is a little over my head. ^^;
I learned English right after I learned Viet though, so that basically erased any accent I had.
But then thinking about it, I never was that good at reading Viet...I can follow karaoke ok sometimes though. ^^;;

Good luck on figuring this out, although I think that it'd be ok for you to take the test.

Posted by: Tohru (pudges)
Posted at: September 20th, 2007 01:49 am (UTC)

I agree. If you've spent the majority of your life speaking English, and that's the first language you remember speaking in, then I would say that's your native tongue. My friend's son is learning English and Portuguese at the same time, but his parents are both American, and speak English more often than Portuguese at home, so I would still consider English his native language (even if he's nearly as fluent in Portuguese as English - for a 3-year-old.)

Posted by: neigehilde (neigehilde)
Posted at: September 20th, 2007 01:50 am (UTC)

the first you've learned and maintained proficiency in. Also such factors as "what you speak at home" and "what your parents speak", "what you speak outside home" and even "what you yourself consider your native language" come into consideration. Trust me. We've been doing this stuff as part of university practice and had informants fill in the forms to determine their reliability as native speakers.

So, well yeah. Since you speak Englih at home and outside I don't see why you can't take JPLT (you are not japanese citizen anyway, right?). I mean it's a qualification exam which serves as proof you know the language, while one of your parents being Japanese doesn't automatically guarantee you knowing a thing.

Next. If you yourself think that JPLT is a bit too simple I remember reading something about bunken - something like a kanji proficiency test fro the Japanese. You might want to check that out...

Posted by: Shadow (kagedreams)
Posted at: September 30th, 2007 07:08 pm (UTC)

Yeah, things here changed from Japanese to English when I was still young, and there was no push to maintain Japanese after that. I've long since missed out on applying for dual citizenship although I think it's still possible for me to apply as the "daughter of a national" or something similar. As it is though, I'm definitely not a citizen.

I've heard about the kanji test, but that one freaks me out more than the JLPT. (I also don't know if it's possible to take overseas or if I'd have to go to Japan for it.) ^^; As it is, I think stroke order is also important for the kanji test, and while I can recognise kanji, I don't think I could actually write them. I love computers in that sense. ^^;;

Posted by: Kakurenbo (akinarei)
Posted at: September 20th, 2007 02:13 am (UTC)

But doesn't it go hand in hand for some people? Like for me, a third generation American, English is my native tongue; I learned it first and have remained proficient in its use.

I think the first language you learn is your native tongue or mother tongue. Whether or not you remain proficient in it is really up to you the person, no? Do you chose to speak that language, or learn a new one and make that your dominant language to fit in with society around you?

It's a complex question. @_@ Thanks-- maybe studying for my test'll help take my mind off of it =P

Posted by: Hezziwig (hezziwig)
Posted at: September 20th, 2007 03:54 am (UTC)

I think you need to take into account that the test itself is culturally not just linguistically Japanese. Unless you were going to serious Japanese lessons after school when you were growing up (doesn't sound like it), and it's all your parents spoke at home, I don't think you count as fully "native". Sure, you have a better feel for the language than someone like me who is learning it from scratch, but I think taking the test is still a valid way to measure where you're at.

Posted by: The Hamster Of Death (vampyrichamster)
Posted at: September 20th, 2007 04:14 am (UTC)

This topic is very interesting to me because I do work as a translator, and definitions of a "native language" really affect our jobs. I'm a native Malaysian, in the sense I was born and raised in Malaysia, and spent my first 17 years of schooling (50% in Malay) there. This qualifies me to say on my resume that I'm a native Malaysian translator.

The sticky part is that my family spoke English at home. I spoke English when I went out. Most of the people we knew would speak English to me. In fact, my Malay was pretty bad when I started schooling, to the point that it used to really affect my grades. I did well enough in studying Malay later, but my grades or proficiency in the language would never be as comfortable as my English.

When I arrived in Australia and put in applications for post-graduate studies, universities asked after my English proficiency, as a "non-native speaker". That was the first time I ever had to really think about my dominant language, and the funny part was, I think in English. Back in Malaysia, people looked at me funny for speaking too much English. :)

I strongly believe "native language", at least in terms of official documents, is a fancy name for the language that defines our ethnicity, a slightly racist kind of label at that. Our native language should ideally be the language we think in, the one we're most comfortable with. It's like, my mother's Chinese. I grew up around people who spoke Chinese, but I'm terrible at speaking it. I was taught some basic writing as a child, but like you, forgot most of it and only started re-learning kanji/handze a few years ago. This doesn't make me partially a native Chinese speaker.

If you think predominantly in English, and find that you still have to think in English before translating your speech into Japanese, then you probably aren't a native speaker. If the JLPT forms require proof that you're not a native speaker, the fact that you're Canadian should be enough. Curiously, can they prevent you from taking the test due to your ethnicity?

Posted by: monkey monkey (sakuratea)
Posted at: September 20th, 2007 04:23 pm (UTC)

I think that's absolutely true. I also think that the fuzzyness means that one should choose the one that will best serve your purposes.

Posted by: Shadow (kagedreams)
Posted at: September 30th, 2007 07:49 pm (UTC)

Well, I pretty much think in Japanese when I speak Japanese, but that's also true for when I speak French. I learned that trick when I was in Jr. H.S. after going on a French immersion weekend where we had to speak French for the entire weekend (except between 11PM-8AM and when out horseback riding as "the horses don't speak French". :P ) In any case though, yes, I do normally think in English and consider it my dominant language. I don't think the test centres would actually refuse to allow me to take the test, but it's a question of how much Japanese I actually retained from childhood and how it might influence my performance on the test. The only thing is that I really consider most of my proficiency to have been gained during the three years I lived in the country. :/

Posted by: Maria (reynardine)
Posted at: September 20th, 2007 06:38 am (UTC)

My father, whose family immigrated to America from Hungary before he was born, grew up speaking Hungarian within his family because the older generation was more comfortable with it. So Hungarian was his "first" language, but English (which he used outside the home, for school and later for work) was his "dominant" language. He counts himself a native English speaker for that reason--and certainly, he couldn't explain why Hungarian grammar works the way it does, because he was never formally schooled in the language. If you were older when you were learning to read/understand Japanese writing and grammar, then I wouldn't count Japanese as your "native" language.

Posted by: Ku (spacemonkeyku)
Posted at: September 20th, 2007 07:57 am (UTC)

Your native language would be the language you "think" in. The one your are most comfortable with.

I've known people who can switch between languages fluently, but there is only one that they think in all the time. THAT would be your native language. (And not after you've spent some time reading or speaking it. I have a friend who tells me that when she spends a lot of time speaking English, that's what she thinks in but normally it's Japanese.)

Posted by: Shadow (kagedreams)
Posted at: September 30th, 2007 07:53 pm (UTC)

*laughs* I think in three, but yes, I predominantly think in English. :P (I think in the other two on occasion to keep in practise, but it's usually a conscious decision to switch to them.)

Posted by: Momoko (xelloss_poo)
Posted at: September 20th, 2007 08:48 am (UTC)

A native language can be either the first language they've learned and maintained proficiency in, but it is not limited to one language. If you grow up in a household where French and English are both spoken, and you acquire both and can speak both fluently, then they are both your native languages.

If you had acquired and maintained a proficiency in Japanese along with English, they would both be your native languages. It sounds like though, that English is your native language and not Japanese, since you do not have natural/native fluency.

Posted by: wombat1138 (wombat1138)
Posted at: September 20th, 2007 02:06 pm (UTC)

I'm in a similar situation, since technically my first language was my parents' dialect of Chinese, which they still use to speak to each other and most of the rest of the family. (All of them except for us kids who were raised in the US are fluently multilingual, which makes my skin crawl with embarrassed inadequacy.) I never got past toddler-level with it, though, with a vaguely subliminal comprehension of a limited vocabulary that was mostly about food and relatives By virtue of seniority, my older brother hung onto it to a later age until he started kindergarten; at that point, he switched over and refused to go back, so both of us were raised in English after that.

I can't really think of any obvious ways that my early exposure to Hokkien has lastingly shaped my mindset, other than having some awareness of spoken tones, which apparently some people can't hear at all. If anything, it made things even more confusing when I took some lessons in Mandarin around age 10-- Hokkien is sufficiently different that none of the words sounded the same-- although that did provide an introduction to the written language which has made learning kanji somewhat easier.

Posted by: monkey monkey (sakuratea)
Posted at: September 20th, 2007 04:27 pm (UTC)

I think that native language is an ambiguous term, as evidenced by the discussion. However, I think you should take or not take the test as you please. It is obvious that you have some qualities of both being and not being a native Japanese speaker, so whether you choose to accept the label or not is is your decision. However, I would not take it if you would like to be able to put "native Japanese speaker" on a resume.

Posted by: Joie (hymnia)
Posted at: September 20th, 2007 06:17 pm (UTC)
Kagura flowers

I could accept either the first or the second definition.

Posted by: gyabooo (kucheekybadkuya)
Posted at: September 21st, 2007 06:47 pm (UTC)
[Sound of a Bell] Thirteen warm

This is a really interesting issue to think about, especially for multi-lingual people. My perception of native language in legal/technical terms is the language associated with one's ethnicity or homeland (for instance, if you're Japanese or grew up in Japan, Japanese could be considered your native language), but I have no idea how well my assumption holds up or if the definition is even consistent across different legal systems. Googled and this is one of the definitions it turned up, which is closer to the 3rd option on your poll.

I prefer the idea of native language to be closer to the 2nd and 3rd options myself - they're a more functional definition of the term IMO, if that makes any sense. Any of the definitions could make all the languages I'm fluent in my native languages (English by way of dominant language; Mandarin by way of mother tongue; Malay by way of being born and raised in Malaysia), yet I don't feel the same affinity towards the languages I use. And yet, while I'm most proficient in English I feel odd calling it my native language (probably because of cultural conditioning) - so I'm probably just as confused as you are XD

In any case, I hope you sort the JLPT decision out. I think it's worth taking, native language considerations aside ... you get to find out your proficiency as intended, and it's an incentive to improve =)

Posted by: evenstar1389 (evenstar1389)
Posted at: September 25th, 2007 04:08 am (UTC)

I think it's the language your race speaks. For example, i'm a chinese from Singapore, even though my dominant language is english and everyone speaks english in singapore. My native language is still chinese. My lecturer told us to put chinese as native speaker when we took the A levels...(even though i think mine is too poor to pass for a native speaker ^^;)

Posted by: Kakurenbo (akinarei)
Posted at: September 26th, 2007 02:30 am (UTC)
If you don't mind my saying...

Hmm... I've been thinking about this some and really, what you're trying to decide I think is the worth of taking the JLPT, yes?

I don't necessarily think any of the comments have helped you reach a decision in my opinion, so I'll just say this:

If you want to, take the test-- see how well you do. You have nothing to lose (unless money's involved and if that's the case, eek! sorry!) and everything to gain. It's not a win-win or lose-lose situation. Don't hold yourself back from taking the test because you might not do as well as you'd hope to.

While on the subject of weighing pro's and con's-- to me, the pro's of taking the test would far out weigh the con's. You might not do as well as you want (or do as well as you think you did), but then again, you'll learn from that. You'll hopefully learn your strengths, your weaknesses, where you need improvement, and where you don't, if you're serious about continuing to study Japanese. If you simply wish to know where you stand, then the test is a definite plus.

Might I also add that I think you're extremely lucky that your parents taught you their (and perhaps even your) native language, because if you're second generation, then Japanese is probably their native language (am I correct in this assumption?). I'm sure you know that still to this day, when people move to a different country, they sometimes choose to acclimate and acculturate themselves to their new environment-- this includes dropping one language for another.

My mother's parents were fluent in Yiddish (yes, I know, a sad language if there ever was one ^_^) but they never taught it to my mother or her brother-- therefore, my mother can't teach it to me. As a third-generation American, not being able to learn another language from my mother-- well, both my parents, really-- is a loss of heritage to me.

In this respect, I think you're very lucky.

Anyhow, for what this long-winded comment is worth (if anything, really), I hope it helps.

Now I really do need to get some sleep or I'll never wake up in time to get to class.

Lilah Tov! (Good night!)

Posted by: Shadow (kagedreams)
Posted at: September 30th, 2007 09:15 pm (UTC)
Re: If you don't mind my saying...

Not so much about whether it'd be worthwhile taking the exam as I think it would be worth taking the exam to see how well I do. However, the "native language" issue does beg the question of how much a person might become "pre-wired" to learning a language due to early exposure. I don't know if it's still a valid theory, but I remember reading about an idea that pre-pubescent children might have greater aptitude to learning a language compared to post-pubescent children. This was accompanied with the concept that true proficiency can't be obtained when learning an other language later in life, but I don't think that's necessarily true. However, there was some interesting ideas that brains of pre-pubescent children who suffered from brain injuries to the language centre would become re-wired to allow greater language recovery compared to post-pubescent children. (I think there was some sort of language centre switch from one side of the brain to the other, but am not sure. I read this a very long time ago and am not sure if it's still valid research.)

In any case, while the JLPT itself has a nominal test fee ($60 IIRC), the expenses associated with taking the test (flight, hotel, and taxi fares) puts it more towards $500-1000 (depending on which test centre I go to).

Posted by: Kakurenbo (akinarei)
Posted at: October 11th, 2007 03:32 am (UTC)
Re: If you don't mind my saying...
Out to tea

I really shouldn't let my emails go for so long without being checked. *eyes the massive amount of mail with trepidation*

I've heard that too, that younger children are better suited for picking up languages than older. I don't know if it's still valid or not.

But you mentioned that you started learning Hiragana and Katakana at a young age, so maybe that has something to do with it as well.

I'd question the validity that young children learn better than young adults; I seem to be doing pretty well with Modern Hebrew at my age. Then again, like you, I started learning the letters of the alphabet and vocabulary at a young age. Actually, I take that back-- I started later than most kids my age: third grade, which according to my former temple was appallingly late.

I think however, that we can agree that travel costs suck. ~_~ That's a painful amount for travel fare!

Posted by: カイロンスター (chironstar)
Posted at: September 26th, 2007 10:54 am (UTC)

Actually, I had a really tough time trying to answer your poll, but in the end I went for "the first language you learned and maintained proficiency". I mean, if it's a language that you first learned, but you can't speak it because you haven't maintained proficiency, then you can't really say you're a native speaker of that language, can you?

After reading your posts and thinking about your situation, I don't see any reason why you wouldn't be allowed to or shouldn't take the JLPT - isn't the JLPT a test for someone to measure their Japanese proficiency? Sure, if you've grown up with the language, then there's probably no point in taking it (like there would be no point in asking you to take an English proficiency exam, for example), but given your circumstances, I think it's reasonable for you to take the JLPT...

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: October 4th, 2007 05:13 am (UTC)

Personally, I don’t think the term “native language” ought to be used to gauge *language proficiency*. As Hamster of Death pointed out, it does put emphasis on race or origins *with*proficiency. It should not be used for those who have parents or ancestors from different country than the one they grow up in, or those with mixed ancestry, as it would not be an accurate gauge.

I think the language the speaker is most proficient and comfortable with should be known as the “first language”, and the languages he is not as proficient in “second language” and “third language” and so on. Of course if the person is equally good in two languages he can have two first languages or second languages. :)

As for your dilemma Shadow, if I understand correctly (by reading between the lines); you do not know if you should take the test for “non native speakers” because you could do very well for it and get the best grade, and you still would not know how you would fare with the test for “native speakers”, then you would have felt you had wasted your money?

If that is the case, consider if the test has a composition segment. If it does, and you feel confident with writing composition in Japanese, take the test for “native speakers”. The worst case scenario is failing for the composition segment, but the other segments would still “pull” your marks up and you still would be able to see how well you do for Japanese as first language. If you don’t think you can put up an (oral) argument fully and only in Japanese, than it is a safer bet to take the test as second language/”non native speaker” even if the test does not contain a composition segment.

My cousin took her second language exam and got the best grade, she later took the same language exam as first language a year or so without further study of the language and got a grade equivalent to B-. Of course this is long ago and from different examiners but I hope it helps. :) If you can spare the money and time for the test, and if it bothers you not knowing where you stand, I encourage you to take the test – unless you would like to further improve before doing it.

Yeah, I came across something that says children’s maximum learning potential in general (not just for language) is around the age 7-8 and lowers at around age 11-12. However, I refuse to believe old dogs cannot be taught new tricks. The theories of science are not concrete; after all Pluto is no longer a planet....

Thanks for your Fruits Basket summaries. They are just what I am looking for. :)

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