The Uncanny L2 Valley

I’ve had a bit of a conundrum in learning for quite a while that I have found it hard to stay motivated to learn Japanese while living in Japan, which by most accounts is a fine place to learn it.  Before, I called it a Salieri Point, being demotivated by getting just good enough to start comparing yourself to native speakers, who are Mozart in this metaphor. I have another metaphor to share now, and this one concerns how your process in learning to swim is seen by the native-speaking fish around you.

To reiterate, I do have the highest level of 日本語能力試験, the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, which I got back in 2006, and can read newspapers and most novels at middling speed.  I understate my foreign language ability largely out of habit (nothing is less cool than overstating your language ability) but also because I live in Japan and my reference point is quite high as a result.

Incidentally, the fish metaphor is part of how I explain the seemingly ever-growing difficulty of language learning with the metaphor of a beach – water looks simple, peaceful, and inviting when viewed from above, on land, as a flat plane.  When viewed from the inside it cuts off your air, blocks out the light and seems to extend forever, and all around you are fish who seem to maneuver through it effortlessly.  It’s not the most optimistic metaphor but I think it accurately captures the feeling of looking at a language from the outside as a “thing” vs. from the inside as an environment.  Forests work for this metaphor too – and both (I hope) convey that I might be on hand to explain a thing or two, but they’re the ones who have to paddle/hike.

The ball represents playing another round of Candy Crush instead of studying

On to the main metaphor.

There’s a concept call the uncanny valley in which things which are meant to emulate living things, such as pictures or robots, evoke a feeling of discomfort or disgust when they reach a point of almost-humanness.  This feeling does not occur when the emulation is completely realistic like a live-action video, or reasonably distant like most animation.

A disappointment to fans of both video games and humans.

The feeling is, if it’s just meant to stand for a person, we can accept any degree of artistic reinterpretation, but once it gets close enough to be interpreted simply as a person, we have a gut “ewwwww” reaction to anything non-human about it.

As I did for the movie Amadeus, I have shanghaied this concept for SLA purposes to explain some of the diminishing returns we experience as language learners working hard to gain more and more social capital in the target culture.

The way I pictured things before I moved here for real, back in 2003-2004 when my ideal Japanese-speaking self was at his clearest, was that I’d come to Japan with some language and cultural skill, and people’s perception of me would slowly rise as I improved in both until I was well and truly a member of the community.

I figured the return on investment would look like this:

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 2.02.02 PM.png

But actually, it looks more like this:

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 2.02.32 PM.png

Rather than your social capital rising exactly commensurate with your cultural and linguistic skill, you have tons of social capital to begin with, which drops after a certain skill level is attained and doesn’t rise again until you are almost native-like.

There are elements of this that are probably universal and parts that are particular to learning Japanese in Japan.

Part of the reason for this sudden drop in the value of language skill is socio-cultural, and therefore very context-dependent.  Your evaluation as someone worth interacting with depends to an extent on your closeness to well-known types.  In Japan you have more value as an utterly unassimilated tourist than as a semi-c0mpetent, semi-acclimated bilingual who intends to stay.  The JET Program is famously built on the principle of appealing to benighted newcomers and sending them home again with a lot of appreciation for and not a lot of knowledge on Japan.  A neophyte to Japan therefore has potential, but not an economic immigrant or someone who has been here long enough to see Japan as normal.  You can begin to match the worth to Japanese society of authentic, unadulterated foreigners like JETs once you reach nearly native levels of ability, where you can begin to function like a normal human being, but between newness and total fluency you can expect to hear a lot of “are you going home soon?”  In societies with an immigrant mythology a la Ellis Island or Israel and its diaspora, one could expect the drop-off in appreciation of language skill once it reaches semi-competence to be mitigated as a variety of stages of acculturization are more recognized.  As in Japan there is a temptation to plateau at the stage of a recognizable stereotype before you lose your identity – it’s hard to imagine the Soup Nazi being as memorable with no accent and natural, full sentences.

Another part of the reason for that valley-like slope is psychological.  As in the uncanny valley, when something is close enough to the real thing for us to think we can expect real thing-like interaction with it, and then something appears which is unexpected or difficult, it can be off-putting in a way that is not fixable just by negotiation of meaning.  When we meet someone with a natural-sounding accent who for some reason doesn’t know a word like “gooey”, or conversely someone with beautiful writing who can’t articulate an “r” sound, we may feel a bit as if we’ve been deceived.  My wager is that a lot of Nikkei visiting Japan are seen this way, looking the way they do and sporting names like Wada, particularly if they speak native-accented Japanese but don’t have the pragmatic competence of someone raised here.

(In my experience, many people who started early as kids in eikaiwa wind up with very nice pronunciation but no ability to indicate a lack of understanding or hedge on their opinions, which is a lot like a black belt who’s never felt a punch.)

It’s not just communication errors that occur when people with very good but not quite normal grasps of the target language interact with native speakers – the native speakers may not know what to do with someone who appears as if he or she should be getting every joke but doesn’t.  It would be equally rude to start simplifying your speech and to keep talking as if everyone were on the same page.  In cases like these the very target-like ability that the non-native speaker is demonstrating makes the situation more awkward – it would be easier to have an obvious accent or to be completely fluent, on either side of the uncanny valley.

Just another of the many ways motivation is a complicated beast.

5 thoughts on “The Uncanny L2 Valley

  1. […] I think skyhooking is a good candidate as a term.  In philosopher Dan Dennett’s formulation, skyhooks are like deus ex machina explanations for natural phenomena, as opposed to cranes which have firm grounding in science and the natural world.  Basically, a crane is a sound explanation (like natural selection), and a skyhook is a magical one (like divine creation).  I mean to coopt this terminology for language teaching, as with Salieri and the uncanny valley. […]


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