Monday 4 May 2015

Honest Abe

Abe Shinzo gave a speech to congress a couple of days ago, and now I am conflicted.

You don’t have to watch all of it (and I’ll admit to merely flicking through that video at the top and watching the couple of clips the J-news shows have been playing on repeat), but pick a few seconds at random and you’ll get the general idea. I’m not interested in the content right now so much as the delivery. It’s hardly a soaring flight of Obama-esque oratory, is it? And yet, and yet, and yet…

You’ll recall that I do speeches with my students, and I like to think that both I and they are not too bad at it, relatively speaking. This is where my main point of confliction arises, because Abe’s delivery there is almost exactly the type of delivery I’d be pleased with if produced by one of my students, and I am thus seriously considering showing my students part of this speech at some point later this year in addition to the usual clips. Martin Luther King, JFK, Abe Shinzo: the most unlikely trifecta since the Holy Ghost got all uppity and decided female divine representation wasn’t worth the spit (and with those communion wafers, we all know ecclesiastical spit is something in short supply).

Anyway, I’m not going to claim Abe’s effort is a shining example of speech-making, but it’s obvious that he has received some (if not quite enough) coaching and is successfully avoiding the common pitfalls many Japanese (and indeed non-Japanese) people fall into when trying to give ‘English speeches’. Yes, his tempo and cadence are all over the shop, but he goes slowly (so slowly) and takes a lot of pauses (so many pauses), when the temptation might more usually be to try to speed up, either through nerves and a desire to finish quickly, or through a misguided belief that ‘fast’=’natural’.

This is why I think he’s had some competent but not extensive coaching, because ‘Go Slow’ and ‘Pause Often’ are the kind of simple cues you can hammer into someone’s head when the time isn’t available for sufficient practice. He’s also using a lot of those pauses to make eye-contact, which is surprisingly hard to achieve when you’re reading an unfamiliar text, let alone one in your second language, and this is also another simple cue: ‘When you pause, look up!’ Most impressively of all, perhaps, is that he’s not waving his hands around like a Sesame Street puppeteer who’s so drunk he’s forgotten to put on his actual Muppet, which is something many Japanese people seem to think is an inherent and non-negotiable facet of English speeches. Someone, at least, has had the good sense not to bang on and on about the ‘importance’ of gestures.

So if one of my students produced an effort like this, I’d be pretty satisfied. Again, it’s not outstanding, but it ticks all the core boxes in the rubric and it’s clear that they’ve taken on board what they’ve been told and are making a decent stab at enacting it. Public speaking is a difficult skill, and while I’m a firm believer that anyone can be taught to do anything well, that’s dependent on sufficient motivation and adequate resources (be they time or, say, class size), and it still takes a certain degree of natural talent to push on and be great at something. So a solid B+ for Mr Abe.

“But”, you reasonably object, “He’s not one of your students! He’s the head of government of the third largest economy in the world! He’s the scion of an immensely privileged and wealthy family and the beneficiary of a hugely expensive education (including, lest we forget, a couple of years studying in California). Should we not be holding him to higher standards than a cohort of almost 400 teenagers who are often incapable of stringing two coherent thoughts together even in their native language?”

I’m glad you asked, because this is the other reason I’m conflicted. There’s a fine line between forgiving and condescending, and as Abe, with his money and power and influence and frankly dangerous views on historical revisionism and regional diplomacy, haltingly yet gamely trips through his carefully prepared speech I can’t help but feel that his delivery earns him more sympathy from his audience that is perhaps warranted. It doesn’t help that he’s not exactly speaking in a forceful stentorian tenor, either. So as he stands there with his disjointed English and odd voice and eager smile and well-meaning but misfiring jokes, he could frankly be expounding his intention to reinvade Manchuria and he’d still come across as the funny little foreigner who deserves points simply for trying to speak in English.

This is a fairly unpleasant line of reasoning, I’m fully aware, and it reflects quite badly on all concerned. There’s something I like to call the ‘monoglot’s fallacy’, that learning and speaking a second language is this fantastically difficult and inherently virtuous thing, which conveniently ignores that fact that the majority of the world’s population is functionally multilingual. It’s a fallacy that’s especially prevalent in the Anglosphere (for obvious reasons) and also in Japan, where for all intents and purposes ‘Foreign Languages’ are synonymous with ‘English’. Moreover, Japan’s persistent failure to gain any sort of collective competency in the language, despite decades of throwing money at highly visible yet ineffective policy ‘solutions’, has somehow seemingly become a perverse and source of pride: “Look”, they say, “We’re so consistently bad at learning foreign languages that it can only be further proof of the unique uniqueness of the Japanese language and people! We still give it a damn good go though, despite our oxymoronically superior limitations.”*

Because let’s be honest about this: in this day and age when foreign leaders address the US Congress their primary audience is rarely the people sitting directly in front of them, and for all that I dislike the man, Abe’s no fool. He knows full well it’s a prestige gig for the folks back home, and that his 47 minute speech is going to get boiled down to one, or if he’s lucky, two 10 second clips for that evening’s Japanese news. As long as he can look sufficiently urbane and worldly by appearing to communicate in English in the belly of the beast then job’s a good ‘un. If he can win some personal approval from the yanks in the room by coming across as Quirky Uncle Shinzo, then so much the better, especially if as a result of this they’re, however subliminally, more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for any vague or evasive language he may choose to employ. Expressing “repentance” is not quite an apology, as he knows full well.

Now, whether you do or do not believe that an apology was necessary during this speech is another matter, and not one I’m directly interested in this post, but the manner of delivery, the obvious and sincere effort Abe’s having to put in to get his message across in English, has the simultaneous effect of making it seem like he’s equally sincere in the substance of what he’s saying. Presentation matters, I guess is the unoriginal point I’m making here, combined with one further question: at what point do we stop awarding points for effort?

*The excuses we muster in the Anglosphere for our uselessness with second languages are no less ridiculous, obviously.


  1. With all due respect, it's about time you stopped trying to impress us all with how well read you are, and joined the fight against fascism. After all, it's your kids future too.