My Story: Why I Learned Japanese

The Untimely Death Of Bilingual Schooling in Nova Scotia

I am an ethnic French Canadian, with over 90% French blood, all of it Acadian. That is to say, I’m not descended from the French settlers from Quebec; I am descended from settlers of Eastern Canada who never became part of the culture and dialect of Quebec. Keep this in mind as you read the rest.

I was raised as a native English speaker, deliberately, by English speaking Acadian grandparents. My father had divorced at 2; my younger full brother was put up for adoption before my mother re-married within her Mormon religion (my father was/ is Catholic) and he was in various jobs while his parents raised me, alone. This worked out best for all parties concerned, ultimately. (Eventually he moved closer, became more involved in my life, my grandmother and I moved into his house after my grandfather died and the marital home I was raised in was eventually sold while subject to a nasty dispute with my aunt, and several years later she passed away as well.)

My nearby elementary school, well within walking distance (though at the top of a hill), was French language. In other words, even though I was raised to speak English in the home, 100% of my elementary schooling was in French for the first two years (during which I skipped grade 1, which may not have been the best move in hindsight, socially speaking). I only began learning English in 3rd grade as far as school is concerned.

To put it bluntly, this was ESL. English as a Second Language.

Nova Scotia has English as its official language of business, but this is a French community and people didn’t find anything wrong about having French schools. Indeed, French schooling is a right under Canada’s constitution. Remember this, it will come up later.

I excelled at language in general. I had high grades in all subjects, but mainly, I really wanted to read a lot. The books available were older. After all, the baby boom generation for which these schools were built and financed were schooled in the late 1950’s, 1960’s and early 1970’s. The books brought in then had largely remained.

So, finally I reached high school.

High school, in the District of Clare, was a bilingual high school. Basically it had this kind of structure:

– The French Academic track, considered the hardest and university preparation. (The area’s sole university is French language, also, though it would only give two years towards most degrees and would require transfer elsewhere to complete the degrees. I think French was an exception but anyway…) This is the track I was in. Schooling in everything except English (taught for English native speakers) was in French.

– The English Academic track, considered middle of the road. This was intended for English native speakers, but also included a considerable number of French native speakers or… people who spoke a mixture of French and English and who did not excel in French, and who wanted an easier time.

– The English General track, for students lagging behind and for those who weren’t smart enough to get into University (to put it really bluntly).

For Americans, University = what you call College.

This School No Longer Exists.

Even back then, the “French” courses were schooled using books from Quebec, using the Quebec dialect that included a great deal of words that were not used locally, or which had different meanings than those used locally, which tended to be far closer to Standard French (French used internationally, as well as in France itself).

Using the Canadian constitution, a parent’s association for Francophone parents (in reality, chaired and largely headed by Quebec transplants; the then head had married into one of the province’s French communities) sued the province to provide them with Constitution-complaint French-only education by instituting linguistic Apartheid.

These measures were heavily opposed by parents and students. The court did not take this into consideration in the slightest. A right is a right. Democracy be damned. Public opinion be damned. A right is a right.

The court-ordered compliance with the Constitution resulted in the creation of a French language school board for all provincial French schooling, a parallel system of education alongside the regular school board system.

As a result of this, the new French school board seized control of my old high school, the Ecole Secondaire de Clare, and kicked out the English native students to create a linguistically pure learning environment, where English would be taught only as a second language.

I was just out of high school when this happened. Actually, I’d done a report on the impending situation. I was marked down from 90 to 85 because the teacher did not like my conclusions, mainly that the students would be ill prepared for life in the larger world by learning, in the name of Acadian Francophones, a Quebec dialect of French and a deliberate gimping of any chance to emerge from high school as a fully functional English-French bilingual, as I did.

Many teachers did support this, for ideological reasons, even though parents were largely aghast and inconvenienced and… 100% powerless to do anything about it.

A right is a right. Even a right you don’t want can be imposed upon you by the people who do want it, and who do want it imposed on you.

Aftermath

The English students were forced to bus long distances to get their high school education elsewhere while a new school was built for them at provincial expense.

If you’re wondering why people didn’t just build a new French school, it’s rather simple: The French speakers had a special Constitutional right to their schooling. English speakers only had longstanding public policy to support publicly funded schools. Therefore, rights came before social duties.

My father now works as a network technician at the school that was built and was heavily responsible for setting up its computer cabling and networking.

Japanese Culture: My Cultural Protest Vote

More broadly, I just want to give you some perspective here.

Attempts were made to force “French” culture onto me. Before she went Titanic and became an “international” star and wasn’t as cool anymore, Celine Dion fandom was presented to me by a French teacher as the true mark of a patriot. French singers. French actors. French films. Content was irrelevant; they were French, so they were good.

More broadly speaking, French culture, as presented to me, is 100% political in nature. The Revolution. Declaration of Rights. The flag with the red in it to symbolize the blood of martyrs. Modern socialism. Unions. Strikes. Marches.

More locally, Quebec separatism. French elitism. Quebec linguistic colonialism. (We mere Acadians know nothing of our own and need to be educated to have pride in Francophone culture, that is, Quebecois-speaking French culture, you see.)

There is not a single shred of this that has anything to do with anything BUT politics.

I’m sick of it. I was sick of it then. Fifteen years later, I remain absolutely sick of it now.

Granted, I will never be English. I will never be British. I can’t fake that all those British vibe buildings in English towns don’t resonate with me. I don’t look at a picture of Queen Elisabeth II and go gaga. She’s my nation’s sovereign, but French Canadians have shown broad contempt for that history for many years. I respect it, but I respect it as the culture of someone else, which I respect for that reason alone.

That does not make it mine. Nothing will ever make it mine.

So, I looked around at cultures that I wanted more of. I wanted to find something richer than this politicized, colonialist culture that was being forced upon me by school (though not, I should point out, by my family) as the mark of a good French Canadian.

I found Japanese culture.

That is my answer.

Anime: A World Of Mystery

I only learned after the fact but, I’d been being subliminally trained for Japanese culture since I was six years old and saw The Last Unicorn.

Japanese culture in something as banal (albeit funny and entertaining) in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was something that got me curious. Not the ninja crap, by the way – the cameo Samurai content that came on once in a while. I think one episode had a soul of an ancient Samurai warrior in it, with the full, Samurai Warriors game-ish decked out yoroi (Japanese armor).

It was cool.

Later, I caught a few whiffs of something on my usual (and heavily lacking) cartoon regimen. I didn’t even know what it was. Something about girls in short skirts trying to save the world or… something. It was very confusing. I had no background, no information, and well, I had no idea where this animation was coming from. It wasn’t like what I’d usually seen at all.

That’s right. Sailor Moon.

Around this time, I obtained access to the Internet for the first time. So, when I finally caught the name of the show, and started looking it up using some search engine I can’t even recall, a whole new world opened before me.

Granted, a lot of this was anime subculture. In other words, otakus. But, some of the people involved in this were people who were into it because, long before the huge anime glut of modern times, anime fans were then the few and the proud (?), anyway, the few and the culturally open-minded.

Two people in particular became friends for life, people I speak to regularly to this day, highly intelligent people who had that underlying yearning for things that are, well, different, as well as cute and entertaining.

In those days, the fact that Sailor Moon was a girls’ show wasn’t an issue. (The anime was far less totally tilted towards girls than the manga, by the way, but that hardly matters.)

The point is, there was a lot here. And a lot was lost thanks to dubbing, the fact only two seasons of what would be a total of five were aired in the US/ Canada, and wide fan disgust with the producing company, DiC (which we learned was regarded in the industry as meaning do it cheap).

One day, I had a chance online chat with Trish LeDoux, a major woman at Viz, an American anime company. That is, someone who imported, translated (she did translation herself too), had dubbed, and showed to Americans, Japanese anime of the day. (A good example is the anime version of Rumiko Takahashi’s Ranma 1/2, a noted romantic comedy, kind of like a martial arts sit-com.)

I asked her, seriously, to weigh in on one argument I wouldn’t really easily understand: whether watching subbed (subtitled but using the original Japanese voice tracks) anime or whether watching dubbed (no subtitles, American voiced, usually with inferior voice talent that can’t match the deep, veteran, very skilled Japanese voice acting industry) anime was better for the cultural experience.

Essentially she said…

Why not just watch raw anime? It won’t even take you that long to learn enough to enjoy it.

Raw anime means no subtitles, no dubbing, no translation at all, just understanding pure, undiluted Japanese speech.

Ten years later I actually had the competence to do this at a very high level. Granted, this was without many of the luxuries that being wealthier would have brought – as in, getting my rear end into Japan itself – but uh… Trish, dear, you underplayed how much work it would take just a little…

A Cultural Experience Without Peer

It may not have brought me fame or fortune, but in my own small way, I have to say that I deeply enjoy Japanese culture today. This is in large part because I can appreciate and understand. I don’t have a language barrier (of any degree worth complaining about, anyway) stopping me. Of course, that doesn’t make me an expert at every subject, but it leaves me in the same position I was back in that elementary school library at eight years old: I can read, so I can learn.

My journey’s purpose, after all, was to be able to experience Japanese culture without the blinders, without having all sorts of language issues getting in my way and tripping me up. Indeed, for a time I was a professional translator, though I will say this: my love of literature is a GIANT LIABILITY in business. Literature doesn’t sell. Books don’t sell. Technical writing sells. Engineering sells. Patents sell.

Creative writing, or the skill to translate to a very high level, creative writing, is about as useless a business skill as there exists, or so it would seem.

That’s why I tried education, though it has been a very, very difficult road. I’m helping my father in some business projects too but, well, eventually I’ll have to make something succeed with this.

Because, well, I do have one dream, a yume if you will.

I want to help other gaijin enjoy Japanese culture to the same degree I am able to, with less pain and suffering than I had to go through to get there. I want to help people learn not only about the culture, but to learn the language so that they can experience the culture first-hand and truly enjoy it.

Anyway.

That’s my story.

I felt I should tell it at some point and just get it off my chest.

Laugh if you want. I don’t mind. I’m at peace with it. But this is the reason why. It is a very deep reason that has never really aged.

Take care, everyone.

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for Technorati.com and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: jeremiahbourque@gmail.com
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2 Responses to My Story: Why I Learned Japanese

  1. Daniel R. says:

    Thanks for sharing that. It’s very interesting to hear the *why* behind these stories and places. It’s kind of sad that what drove you hear was a series of negative reasons, but like usual, it resulted in a pretty cool outcome and some personal learning. I hope you get to encourage other Japanese-loving people too in their passion… this blog is a great start to that!! I’m subscribed.

  2. J Sensei J Sensei says:

    Thanks. I’ll continue keeping the faith as time and inspiration permit.

    Mind you, I have tons of positive reasons too. The negative ones may have driven me to make the jump from a general fan of the culture to something more serious but, I’d rather detail those things on their own merits, as I have elsewhere here.

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