I sat fiddling with an English brochure behind a desk in the assembly hall at Shiraishi Island Junior High School. Today, students would present research projects they had been working on since spring. Each project required the students to interview relevant elders on the island for their opinions and put them together in a PowerPoint presentation. Those pursuing local arts and crafts or cooking were to have these elders teach them the traditional ways.
One student chose to talk about how to cook using local foods. Another opted for the Shiraishi Bon Dance, a national intangible cultural asset. Another decided to show how to make crafts from shells found on the beach. One student even researched the state of fish stocks in the Seto Inland Sea.
Then there was the student who wanted to make a brochure in English, aimed at attracting foreign tourists. She called me, the only English-speaker on the island, for advice.
“I interviewed Amy-san to ask her what kinds of things foreign tourists like,” said the student, now at the podium. “I learned, for example, that since most Westerners come from countries where bamboo is not a native species, they enjoy walking through our bamboo forest.”
The English title of her presentation was “Come on my Island!”
“I wanted to make a brochure that is easy for foreigners to understand,” she told her audience, in Japanese.
I noticed she had not chosen to include the bamboo forest in her brochure. Nor did she ask me to help her with any of the written English. After all, she probably had plenty of Japanese teachers who are super-knowledgeable about the English language. She had access to dictionaries, too. In the countryside, where the ratio of native English-speakers to Japanese students is about a million to one, why the heck would you ask a native speaker who lives just 100 meters away?
I flipped through the English brochure as the student launched into her presentation. Suddenly, I heard a tap-tap-tap noise on the desk. I looked up but didn’t see anyone or anything.
Tap-tap-tap. Still unable to ascertain the source of the sound, I decided to ignore it. I was anxious to hear the student’s speech.
Tap-tap-tap. That sound again!
Suddenly the words leapt off the page.
“Oh, the abuse of us prepositions!” a small voice said. “We are always misunderstood.”
The word On was peeking out from inside the brochure. I looked down and scowled disapprovingly at the grumpy preposition.
Meanwhile, the student had started reading from her brochure: “Special product: The mulberry is grown on the Shiraishi Island. The tea of the leaf of a mulberry is sold at a shipping agent.”
“Ugh, we’re always being confused!” yelled the words The and A together.
“Yeah, just because we’re both articles, doesn’t mean we’re not distinct,” said A.
“Definitely,” agreed The.
I cleared my throat to cover up the noise the words were making. But no one seemed to notice. They were listening intently to the student’s speech.
“Oh c’mon,” I whispered. “They’re kids. They’re just learning English.”
The student read on, in that loud, clear junior high school speaking voice: “Culture of the dried seaweed is performed on Shiraishi Island. The dried seaweed is a kind of seaweed and is sold at a shipping agent.”
“I love Japanese English!” piped up the Passive Tense. “I never get enough usage in native English. Writing teachers tell their students to avoid the passive tense like the plague. Thanks a lot. At least the Japanese appreciate me.”
“What about me?” cried the S. “I’m an integral part of every plural, yet I hardly ever get invited, not even to tag along at the end of a noun. The grammar books promise me liberal usage, yet I constantly feel left out.”
“Oh, please!” I scolded the S. “If you’re not used very often, enjoy the rest.” Frankly, I was embarrassed to be having a war of words right in the middle of a student’s presentation.
The student, undaunted, forged on: “If summer comes, many persons will visit in the sea of the Shiraishi Island. The sea is very beautiful and it can relax it.”
“That broken English hurts my back!” interjected Ms. Grammar, the prissy hall prefect for all the letters and parts of speech living in the brochure. “Verbs are in such a state of decline.”
“Such umbrage!” I reply. “It’s not like anyone else is ever going to see these English brochures. Give the students a break! Or at least a full stop. It’s the system, guys, not the students.”
“English education — humph!” groaned the King of Capital Letters. “My letters are constantly getting used the wrong way. That’s a capital offense!”
By now the student had finished her presentation, and the audience of experts clapped politely.
“Oh, there’s one more thing,” she told us. “There is a misspelling in the brochure. I misspelled ‘Shiraishi’ in one instance. Please be sure to correct it. Thank you.”
The next day, as I was leaving the island on the ferry, the port manager ran up to me and said, “Oh Amy, please give these English brochures to your foreign friends so they will come visit Shiraishi Island.” She stuffed some of the student’s computer-generated brochures into my hand.
I was stunned. English as a foreign language really doesn’t get any respect.
Amy Chavez is the author of “Running the Shikoku Pilgrimage: 900 Miles to Enlightenment” (Volcano Press, 2013). Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org