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  • Writer's pictureJae Takeuchi

Introducing my book on Native Speaker Bias in Japan

My book, Language Ideologies and L2 Speaker Legitimacy: Native Speaker Bias in Japan, was recently published with Multilingual Matters. In this post, I explain the concepts of language ideologies, native speaker bias, and speaker legitimacy explored in the book.

The number of foreign residents in Japan has been steadily increasing, but this increase has not been accompanied by an increase in social inclusion. To the contrary, both anecdotal accounts and official government surveys document increasing discrimination, including housing and workplace discrimination as well as hate speech directed at foreigners. These issues mirror the experiences of immigrants and migrant workers around the world. While the details differ from place to place and country to country, a common thread is the difficulty faced by foreigners, often treated as cultural others, as they try to make connections in a new location, using a new language.


Although Japanese language learners are studied extensively, studies tend to focus on classroom contexts, so I wrote this book to examine the linguistic experiences of second language speakers of Japanese who live and work in Japan. I conducted an ethnographic interview study with 50 participants, including first and second language (L1 and L2) speakers of Japanese. Through extensive interviews and participant observations, I learned about challenges faced by L2-Japanese speakers living in Japan and speaking Japanese in their workplace and social relationships.



I take language ideologies as my starting point. Language ideologies refer to beliefs and opinions people have about language, language use, and speakers. These beliefs are often unexamined, or even unconscious, but they can have significant impacts on the linguistic choices people make. With regard to Japanese, there is a lot to choose from! All languages have speech styles or registers, but Japanese is well-known for having some speech styles that present particular challenges to learners. For example, keigo, the system of polite and honorific language, requires speakers to decide whether or how much they will use polite verb forms or honorific expressions. But choices about how to speak are never neutral and are always entwined with beliefs about correct or appropriate ways to use the language.


When the speaker is an L2 speaker, linguistic choices are complicated by language ideologies about L2 ability – with regard to Japanese, beliefs about the uniqueness of Japanese and the unique difficulty of it, lead to expectations that non-Japanese will be unable to master the language. This is an example of native speaker bias, which refers to a collection of ideas about speakers and languages. A key part of native speaker bias is that native speakers are depicted as perfect speakers, and language is depicted as a homogeneous, bounded unit. Both of these ideas overlook the significant linguistic diversity found across speakers and across and within languages.


For L2-Japanese speakers in Japan, native speaker bias means that their attempts to use Japanese are likely to be met with surprise, resistance, or worst. The upshot is that L2 speakers may find that what they are saying gets ignored at the expense of how they are saying it. An example of this is when an L2 speaker says something, and an L1 speaker responds by commenting on the L2 speaker’s Japanese usage, accent, or other aspects focused on the form of speech rather than the content. When this happens regularly, the result is a denial of the L2 speaker’s legitimacy as a speaker. Speaker legitimacy refers to the right to speak and be heard and is an essential ingredient for L2 speakers to make connections in their L2 communities.


My book introduces the linguistic experiences of L2-Japanese speakers and centers the discussion of native speaker bias around beliefs about Japanese speech styles. I argue that the absence of speaker legitimacy – for example, being on the receiving end of unwanted attention for how one speaks – results in negative messages that to be an L2 speaker in Japan is to be a linguistic other, an outsider. At its core, this is what the absence of speaker legitimacy entails, and without it, the ability of L2 speakers to integrate into local communities is diminished. It is for this reason, I would argue, that a crucial component of linguistic human rights is that all speakers have full access to the linguistic repertoire of whatever language they are speaking. This is what allows us to go beyond being L2 speakers to being, simply, speakers.

This blog article originally appeared in the Multilingual Matters website blog, and can be found here: https://channelviewpublications.wordpress.com/2023/04/05/native-speaker-bias-in-japan/

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