Japlish (not Engrish): the Tragic Gift of Bilingualism / Multilingualism


© SE Develop

So Justin, Japlish is your heart language… great! Well, then, how good is your English? How good is your Japanese?

I struggled to think of a successive post to my delightfully popular ‘Japlish (not Engrish): the Hybrid Language of Japanese and English‘, which went viral and was shared worldwide last month, garnering shouts of praise and hundreds of people saying, ‘Hey, that’s what I speak! Thank you for voicing out something which has gone unexplained and misunderstood!’ What would be just as interesting and entertaining and informative?

This post doesn’t necessarily pertain to the act, or art of speaking Japlish, but it is related. Today, I’ll be talking about a tangential result or consequence of speaking said language: the tragic gift of bilingualism or multilingualism.

What do I mean by that? Well, before I dive into the obligatory personal anecdote, let me reintroduce and clarify a few terms:

  • Japlish is a hybrid or mixed language my friends and I speak, in which we mix Japanese and English words and phrases out of convenience and pure laziness; this is not the same as what people commonly refer to as ‘Engrish’. (Read my original post for an elaborate explanation.)
  • Here’s an example of a real-life tongue-in-cheek text Brad sent me a few months ago (this is complex stuff – I have to admit it even took me a good 10 seconds to figure it out):

‘Btw my shink is okured about twenty foon.’

This translates to ‘By the way, my shinkansen will be late by about 20 minutes.’
(‘Btw’ is ‘By the way’; ‘shink’ is shinkansen aka ‘bullet train’; ‘okure‘ is ‘late’ + ‘d’ for a tense change; ‘foon’ is ‘minutes’)

Don’t worry if you didn’t get that. I had difficulty trying to explain it.

  • Also, I wasn’t aware of this before, but a commenter informed me that this is called ‘code-switching’ in linguistic terminology, so I’ll be using that term from now on.


Going back to what I mean by the tragic gift of bilingualism or multilingualism.

As I recounted in my ‘Accents of the English Language‘ post, I grew up predominantly speaking English despite growing up in Japan as my parents are Singaporean. But technically I learnt English and Japanese at the same time, speaking the former at home and the latter at kindergarten. When I was 6 years old, my parents enrolled me in an international school called Christian Academy in Japan (aka CAJ, situated in Higashi Kurume, Tokyo) so that I could receive an English education. Naturally, my English improved drastically; but I still spoke Japanese everyday, especially with my friends.

Understandably, up until the age of 16, I thought I was proficiently bilingual. According to my parents, I started reading both English and Japanese books at the age of 3. I had no trouble communicating in both languages, e.g. with teachers at CAJ in English and with employees at Lawson, a convenience store, in Japanese. I studied academic English in school and academic Japanese in Kumon (juku). Then came the turning point.


A page from the「トリビアの泉」’The Fountain of Trivia’ book

It was a typical day after school. I had just finished practising for an instrumental ensemble performance with 2 Japanese friends, Shun and Meg (oboe, clarinet, flute). We decided to drop by the bookshop and soon I was flipping through a book collecting absurd trivia deriving from one of my favourite TV programmes at the time called「トリビアの泉」or ‘The Fountain of Trivia’. Finding a particularly hilarious one, I called them over and began reading it aloud. Before I had even finished the sentence, I noticed them doubled over with laughter and I knew instinctively that they weren’t laughing at the book. They were laughing at me.

Bewildered, I asked them what was so funny, to which Shun replied,「お前の日本語ちょう訛ってるじゃん!」(‘Your Japanese sounds so weird!’) I was shocked and stunned, in utter disbelief. I probed further and they explained that my stresses and rising/falling tones were odd, differing from the Standard Japanese accent (hyojungo). I could speak Japanese relatively fine with a native accent, but I had never been taught how to read Japanese, thus my inconsistency. And that was the beginning of my conscious effort to fix, correct and ‘purify’ my Japanese accent.


A Japlish conversation between two of my friends

This undoubtedly has its roots in the fact that Japlish was my main language; I never bothered to polish and improve my English or Japanese abilities since there was no need to. It was only when I graduated from CAJ in 2009 and found myself immersed in an all-English (or for some friends, all-Japanese) environment when I finally realised why the majority of us were not well-versed in either and only English or Japanese.

When I returned to Singapore to serve my 2 years of military service after my high school graduation, my English level far exceeded my Japanese. Plus I had no Japanese-speaking friends in Singapore. So I decided to do something rather extreme: immerse myself completely in everything Japan and everything Japanese.

Every single second of my life revolved around Japan. I listened to Japanese music and watched Japanese films. I read manga as well as Japanese novels (including working my way through all of Haruki Murakami’s works); the paperbacks were an extremely portable A6 size and I carried one in my army vest pouch even during training. I watched Japanese variety programmes daily; these proved to be the most beneficial because of the plethora of subtitles. I Skyped my friends every weekend and spoke to them in Japanese. In fact, I even spoke to myself in Japanese.

r-BILINGUALISM-large570My efforts paid off. My Japanese level soared drastically. I went back to Japan to work for 8 months post-army and people were amazed by my Japanese abilities, especially for someone with no Japanese blood. Even I was astonished; I knew I had improved but it was only when I was placed in Japanese society that I realised the extent to which I had attained. For the first time in my life, I felt more at ease using Japanese over English.

After those 8 months, I went to Durham University, UK to study English Literature. I realised to my utter dismay that my English level had plunged severely. I was horrified. Commonplace English words eluded me, often resulting in cringing my forehead, squinting my eyes, snapping my fingers as if that would magically conjure up the words I was looking for, and failing miserably to think of them. My English vocabulary had diminished (whereas my Japanese vocabulary had grown vastly). This was not a particularly good sign going into my English degree.

But naturally, and thankfully, as the year progressed, my English began ‘improving’. I tried to maintain my current Japanese level, and simultaneously raise my English level. This proved to be much more difficult than I thought. And soon the summer came, I returned to Japan and this time, I couldn’t think of the right Japanese words I wanted to use. It was somewhere in my mind, on the tip of my tongue… but no, it wasn’t coming out.

Finally, at the beginning of my second year back in Durham, I made the conscious decision to concentrate largely on English. The reason was simple: this was to allow my English level to grow at a much faster pace than before.

Think of it as a graph with two bars, one signifying English, the other Japanese. If the two bars are at the same height, and I attempt to maintain both languages, both bars will grow steadily, but just really slowly.

graph 1

If I spent less time on my Japanese and focused more of my energy on English, yes, the Japanese bar might slowly decrease (or hopefully stay at the same height), but the English bar will grow exponentially.

graph 2

(Whew, it’s been ages since I last created a chart in Excel. Not too shabby for an English student, eh?)

This was also around the time I began to pursue seriously my dream of becoming a published novelist writing in English, which accounts for the reason why I was all right with (slightly) letting go of my Japanese for the time being. And it’s paid off handsomely.


Speaking Japlish and Japlish only can constrain development in either language unless you make a conscious effort on your part to improve either/or. I was discussing bilingualism/multilingualism with Brad and he said it’s ‘the tragedy of people who grow up to be fluent in no language.’ Thus the tragic gift.

Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t trade my bilingual abilities for anything. I’m not whining here; I’m just trying to point out the difficulties in maintaining more than one language. It’s a gift, but if you’re not aware of the consequences of such a gift, and if you don’t manage it efficiently, it can be tragically detrimental.

590705787I remember back in middle school when for a while teachers tried to enforce a ‘no Japanese’ rule. I can see why such an idea might have occurred to the staff at the time as their ‘rational’ way of protecting us from being fluent in neither language. But really, such an idea is ridiculous, ludicrous even.

I wished (and hope for current international schools) that rather than banning one language to focus on another, we as multilingual students were given an environment where we could nurture our various languages (to be fair, efforts were made and things improved). It’s important for teachers to be patient with what might be seen as ‘slow growth’ in linguistic abilities, and to be aware of the natural consequences of being bilingual or multilingual.

One of my good friends, Remi Yamazaki, a fellow international student from Japan and a trilingual in the process of learning her fourth language, wrote an article recently entitled ‘Learning Two Language at Once: How it’s Done‘ in which she addresses the vital question of ‘What factors should you consider when you’re thinking of learning two languages at once?‘ There are several interesting points she outlines and observes:

  • Dual Language approach: Dulwich College, a new international school in Singapore, have begun holding lessons in English and Mandarin simultaneously.
  • Staggering approach: choosing a primary and secondary language, recommending a 70/30% division of time between languages.
  • Language Core: the importance of building a ‘language core’ aka ‘an emotional, intellectual connection with a language’.

cartoonI find the emergence of a simultaneous teaching method rather intriguing. I’m not quite sure how it works and whether it’d be more beneficial or confusing than the staggering approach, which is essentially what I use (i.e. 70% English, 30% Japanese).

I wholeheartedly agree with building a language core with which you can base other languages upon; a focal point, just like how learning piano at an early age created the musical foundation which I drew upon when learning new instruments. But I believe you can have more than one language core. In my case, I’ve created an ’emotional, intellectual connection’ with both English and Japanese.

Or is Japlish my ultimate language core? Or maybe the question is: can Japlish, or any other hybrid language, even be one?



I did a bit of research this past week by interviewing, via Facebook message, a few friends: 2 of them are married, have kids and are raising them as trilingual; 2 of them are my peers who are trilingual. I asked the first 2 how they planned to raise their kids and what the difficulties were in carrying it out; I asked the next 2 what were the advantages and disadvantages of being trilingual, and the difficulties in being raised as one. Here are their thoughts:

1. Yujiro: half-Japanese & half-Salvadoran married to a Japanese, raising his kids as trilingual in Japan (Japanese, Spanish, English)

  • His son currently attends a local Japanese school and so his Japanese is strongest, followed by Spanish, then English. He plans to send his kids to an international school eventually where their English level will rise. But when that occurs, he also plans to increase Spanish resources and even bring them back to El Salvador for immersion.
  • He reads bedtime stories in English, gives instructions in Spanish and speaks absolutely necessary things in Japanese.
  • He also recognises the importance of having a language core: ‘one language as a database to draw from and help them understand their surroundings’.
  • His aim is for them not to view any of the three languages as foreign; they’ll recognise all languages regardless of level. He hopes for his kids to have a good balance of English (reading, writing, speaking), Spanish (reading, speaking) and Japanese (reading, speaking).

I remember sitting in a car he was driving with his son in the back when we stopped at a red light. He pointed to the light and asked his son, ‘What colour?’ to which his son impressively replied in three languages: ‘Red, aka, rojo!’

2011120473329623_627_o2. Hitomi: Japanese married to a French Canadian, raising her son as trilingual in Japan (Japanese, French, English)

  • She speaks Japanese to her son while her husband speaks French. English is used as the common language in the family as well as their community.
  • Even if the 3 of them are in an English environment, she and her husband endeavour to speak in Japanese and French to their son. But a lot of times, it’s difficult to switch and they end up speaking English.

3. Masami: 1/8 Japanese & 7/8 Taiwanese, trilingual university student currently in Taiwan (Japanese, English, Mandarin)

  • Japanese is her strongest. English is her weakest in speaking, and Mandarin is her weakest in reading and writing (but she retains her Mandarin speaking abilities by conversing with it at home). In other words: Japanese>Mandarin>=English. But when she is with her Japanese friends, they say her Japanese is poor.
  • Since she can’t communicate with her friends and family in English, she only uses it when she goes overseas to English-speaking countries. It’s those times when she realises how low her English-speaking level is so she makes a conscious effort to use it more frequently. Since graduating from high school, she’s stopped learning academic English and spends a lot of time on YouTube, thus speaking English randomly and erratically.
  • She often finds herself unable to think of the Japanese equivalent for English and Mandarin words.

4. Dona: Albanian who moved to Japan when she was 5 years old, trilingual university student currently in the UK (Japanese, English, Albanian)

  • Advantage: being able to use another language when she can’t come up with the exact expression she wants to use, making her ‘rich in expressions’ and able to understand various cultures through the underlying differences in language.
  • Disadvantage: mixing up multiple languages only works with her family and with a limited number of friends. Most of the time, she’s forced to speak in only one language, and when she needs to find a certain expression which she would usually substitute with one from a different language, she takes a while to think of it, making her look less intelligent than she really is.
  • She speaks a mixture of all three languages with her family. Albanian is slowly slipping out of her head due to lack of practice, but she’s hoping to visit Albania next summer to revive her language abilities by interacting with the people there.
  • She declares the key to maintaining all three languages to be human interaction with speakers of each language.

As a bilingual speaker, I can relate to a lot of observations made. Just a glimpse into how complex it is to raise or be raised as multilingual.


Map showing multilingual nations. Purple indicates nations that have more than one official language, green indicates nations with one official language but functionally multilingual, blue indicates nations with no official language and multiple languages in practice.  (from Wikipedia)

Map showing multilingual nations. Purple indicates nations that have more than one official language, green indicates nations with one official language but functionally multilingual, blue indicates nations with no official language and multiple languages in practice. (from Wikipedia)

I’ll finish with a surprising discovery I made the other day while reading the Wikipedia article on ‘Multilingualism‘. Apparently, multilingual speakers outnumber monolingual speakers in the world!

That makes me wonder though: does this mean that in the future, if multilingual speakers continue to increase, and monolingual speakers slowly disappear or become multilingual, no one will have a masterful grasp of any single language?

Languages constantly transform. Does that mean the interactions of various languages will lead to an inevitable increase in mixed languages and code-switching?

I guess we can only speculate and see.

If you’re monolingual, does reading about such difficulties put you off from learning other languages? Or do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages? (They still do for me personally.)

If you’re bilingual or multilingual, did anything resonate with you particularly? What’s your story of this tragic (or not tragic) gift?

[Note: I realised that any subsequent posts about Japlish will likely not reach the level of popularity my original post did, for a simple reason: the deeper I explore Japlish, the smaller my audience will get. My niche audience will inevitably get even more ‘niched’. That’s not to say I’m against delving deeper into the Japlish issue; on the contrary, I have some very good ideas for subsequent Japlish posts, and I hope to pioneer the way for further examination and exposure about my heart language. So if Japlish interests you, look forward to them!]

[UPDATE: Read my next Japlish (not Engrish) post here: ‘Japlish (not Engrish): Translating Famous Passages into Japlish‘]


3 thoughts on “Japlish (not Engrish): the Tragic Gift of Bilingualism / Multilingualism

  1. I wish all my text messages achieved such notoriety.

    I could be wrong but I think languages are disappearing at a much faster rate than they are appearing/dividing/however new languages come about. Along with this, I wouldn’t be surprised if major world languages become more similar in the future with more and more loan words (like Japanese with English).

    That is to say, an eventual Star Wars-like situation where almost everyone can understand, if not speak, a common tongue (‘Basic’) in addition to their own language/dialect is not outside the realm of possibility.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: la Babele di Picci | ero Lucy

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