Every non-American English teacher in Fukuoka has heard this dreaded phrase at least once: “Ano… sensei? You spelled that wrong. There’s no ‘u’ in color.” It’s enough to make a Canuck want to bang her head against the whiteboard. Or a Kiwi, or an Aussie, or a Brit, or… in fact, pretty much anyone who is not American. At least once a semester I must stop my class and explain to a room full of patiently waiting (or sleeping) ichi-nensei students that ‘no, in fact, I have not made a mistake.’ There are two commonly accepted ways of spelling words － the American way and, what I jokingly refer to as, the right way.
My students never laugh.
I tell them that it is a known fact that the only people in the world who spell everything the American way are the Americans. I go on to explain that most English-speaking countries around the world, save for the United States, use the British form of spelling, or a mixture of British and American. These ‘Queen’s English’ spellings, of course, have their roots in the historical evolution of the language. At one time words may have actually been pronounced as they are now written. Or, perhaps, it is due to the atrocious attempts at spelling made by the first printers before spelling was standardized. Anyone ever tried to read the first printings of a Shakespeare Folio? Don’t. Trust me. Perhaps American spelling, as well as the American rejection of the metric system employed by practically every other first-world nation on Earth, is a form of protest. I can well imagine a guy in a tavern in 1775 saying to his buddies: “We don’t want to be British, we’ll be Americans, thank you very much! To prove it, let’s have a revolution, gain our independence, and change our spelling and measuring systems into such a garble that no one but us will understand it. We’ll be able to spot a non-American at a hundred paces!”
Ribbing aside, it just doesn’t seem to make sense. Even our dear Fukuoka Now, despite its publisher being Canadian himself, chooses to utilize the American style of spelling over any other. Why? “We are seen by people all over Fukuoka,” Nick Szasz, the publisher and conceiving force behind this magazine, said one night over drinks. “We don’t want endless phone calls telling us, ‘Oh, there’s a spelling mistake on page seven.’ We also do translations － we can’t have a magazine that looks like it’s spelled poorly.”
Even though it’s not. Nothing against our American cousins; I actually believe that many of the edits they have made to the English language make sense. Isn’t “thru” a more accurate phonetic representation than “through”? We all say “sent-er” not “sent-reh”, so why is it ‘centre’ and not ‘center’?
What really sticks in my craw is the Japanese education system’s insistence that the only correct way to do anything in the English language is the American way. Folks with New Zealand accents are asked to pronounce words “properly” in front of their classes. Australians are told to modify their spelling. Everywhere native English speakers are asked to avoid their own local slang words, their zokugo, in favour of the false and flat slang found in the text books.
Isn’t the point of having a native English speaker as a teacher to promote internationalization and an awareness of the diversity of cultures around the globe? Apparently not. What I leave out of my explanation to my students is that the other people who only spell things the American way are those who are trying to imitate the Americans. I think this goes back to the culturally imbedded xenophobia that Japan as a whole (if rarely Japanese people in specific) is prone to. Japan is a mono-culture, an island that has been physically and culturally cut off from the whole world for centuries. It has only been since the late 1800s that Western culture has infiltrated Japan on a wider scale than the novelty ‘Dutch Learning’ books imported from the traders in Nagasaki. The first major Western culture Japan had contact with was the United States, with its own influential culture.
And one mustn’t forget Hollywood. If ever there has been an engine for cultural exportation, it is American filmmaking. Blockbuster movies circle the globe, playing in rural towns, megacities, and film festivals in every conceivable language on Earth, plying American dreams, American ideals, and yes… American accents. If the “American Way” is the only image of the Western world, and of the English language, many Japanese are exposed to, why wouldn’t they think that it’s the “Only Way”? Even though it is frustrating, it is easy to see why Japanese English-language education is conducted solely in “American”. It’s our job, then, as Americans and non-Americans alike, as Global English Speakers, to teach that although there is one “Way”, there is also another. Many others, actually: one for each country, each dialect, and each person.
By Jessica Marie Frey
English Teacher and Frustrated Nitpicker
Pictures are copywright Shirley Waisman 2006