Do You Speak English?

Japanese actor, Hiroshi Abe

Steering your way through Tokyo’s Monday morning rush hour can feel like a Herculean task. I was a bit rusty and had forgotten how to make a 100 metre dash for the train. Jimbocho Station was swarming with office-goers who knew precisely how to walk without stepping on someone’s toes. It was strange to witness order prevail in a potentially chaotic situation. Everyone seemed to follow a code of conduct  — one that I was struggling to decipher. As I struggled to fight a mild panic attack, the short hand on the clock touched 10, and I let out a sigh of relief. I could now return to the world of subway travel that I was more accustomed to.

Roppongi Hills

Mori Tower, Roppongi Hills

Roppongi Hills is a fancy, upscale neighbourhood in Tokyo. It’s hard to miss the cosmetic surgery signboards promising results that match Hollywood standards. It reminded me of Seoul’s Gangnam district with its ubiquitous cosmetic clinics and towering glass facade buildings. Mori Tower dwarfs every building in the vicinity and is an iconic symbol of Roppongi Hills. It’s also one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo and the Observation Deck promises a panoramic view of the city. I don’t do well with heights, but I could be brave behind a glass window and pretend to enjoy the city view.

Mori Tower, Roppongi Hills

I spent the first half of the morning marvelling Leandro Erlich’s exhibition in Mori Art Museum. As I exited the Museum and entered the Observation Deck area, I was greeted by a smiling face. I don’t have much experience as a solo traveller, but I chose to smile back at her. Being introverted (and socially awkward at times), I didn’t expect to have to speak to my new friend. By nature, I prefer to avoid talking, unless there’s an absolute need for it. But the rules of solo travel are very different.

She said, “Hello!”

and before I could respond, followed it with:

“Do you speak English?”

At that moment, the neural receptors of my brain froze for an instant.

I wondered if I looked more exotic that morning or did my hennaed hands betray me. The answer should have been simple. I had spent my early childhood being pushed into English elocution, drama, plays, and was one of the preferred lay readers at church. I had spent my twenties studying natural sciences in English and my thirties dabbling in writing — again in English.

Mori Tower, Roppongi Hills

“silence is the language of god, 
all else is poor translation.” 
― Rumi

But I’ve grown used to being asked questions about my ability to speak a given language. Some are surprised I speak English fluently. Once, a blogger, who had never heard of our blog, asked me if I write in English. I was tempted to say no. It was easier to lie than be honest about failing miserably at SEO. Back home, I’m often asked why I speak English. Our checkered history with colonialism and rich heritage of local languages/dialects makes it difficult for many to appreciate the language. Whilst others are surprised I speak local languages. I often wonder if it’s truly possible to guess the language spoken by a person on outwardly appearance. I for one have rarely been good at that guessing game.

Maman Spider Sculpture, Roppongi Hills

Maman Spider Sculpture, Roppongi Hills


  1. in or using several languages.
    “a multilingual dictionary”

I grew up multilingual. As a kid, like my siblings, I picked up 4 languages through film, music, books, and quite naturally from my parents. I don’t think we were prodigies, but we might have inherited mum’s gift for picking new languages. I formally learned 3 of those languages in school with English being the primary medium of instruction. Ironically, I never formally learned my mother tongue, I can’t write its script, and most of my sentences come by instinct, or by mimicking the rules of other languages — often making them grammatically incorrect.

Mohri Garden, Roppongi Hills

By high school, it was time to learn another language. Many years later, a trip to Paris would prove that 2 years of high school French don’t amount to much. After college, during a sabbatical, I tried to learn German and quit after 2 months.

TV Asahi, Roppongi Hills

I don’t think I was ready to give up learning new languages. Trips to Japan, China, and eventually Korea made me want to learn new languages. But, I was in my thirties now and I underestimated the bandwidth of my learning capacity. When we moved to Seoul, 2 years back, I had to learn Korean to survive. And that’s when the allure of learning a new language began to fade away. Survival is very different from fantasy and reality can be a bitter pill to swallow.

Observation Deck, Mori Tower

As an expat, in Seoul, I meet people from different countries on a daily or weekly basis. I’ve never stuck to a particular group and I have friends from different continents. I’ve realised that people who don’t know English are often hesitant to speak to someone who does. Many of them feel guilty for being unable to speak the language.

For many people, language is also a part of their cultural identity. Because I was raised multilingual, language never became a part of my cultural identity. I always knew it was only a communication tool for me. I couldn’t relate to any particular language and it also made me very confused at times. As an adult, I don’t think I have the answers yet.

Tokyo City

Under a blanket of clouds

“Meow” means “woof” in cat.”
― George Carlin

In Seoul, I speak a variation of language, words that might seem like English but are connected with Korean or another foreign language. I use hand signs and also translator apps when everything else fails. On trips back home, I feel the need to speak every language I learned to prove that I haven’t forgotten my roots. But that only leads to further confusion. And there are times when I genuinely feel like I don’t know how to speak English or any language.

Observation Deck

You could understand why I was confused by her question. I managed to nod my head and her smile grew wider. It’s quite possible that she had never travelled to a country where English wasn’t widely spoken or she had found it hard to find people who spoke English in Japan. And I can understand that it can be quite frustrating if you cannot speak or communicate because of a language. She was pretty chatty and happened to be a photographer on an assignment.

Observation Deck

“Words are a pretext. It is the inner bond that draws one person to another, not words.”
― Rumi

And after our brief conversation, she gave me a warm hug. It was time for her to go back home. We didn’t exchange numbers and I doubt our paths would cross again. But in that brief interaction, as 2 foreigners in Japan, we forged a bond over a shared language. And I guess that’s what language is to me. A thread to connect people. Northing more, nothing less.

Additional Reading & Viewing

  1. How being multilingual changes you, from novelist Yann Martel (video)
  2. Language is my identity by Stan Grant, for The Guardian (video)
  3. How do people define their national identity, by Adam Taylor, The Washington Post
  4. Language and Identity, Buoyant Brussels







4 responses to “Do You Speak English?

  1. Wow. I have so many things I want to say in answer, but I’ll choose the one foremost in my mind. An acquaintance told me an anecdote recently, involving a linguist. The key message :to master any language you only need to learn 800 words. That’s 15 words a week, and 2 or 3 a day. You seem to have a natural bent for language, don’t be overwhelmed by the demands of 3 words a day. 😁

  2. The language was devised by mankind as a means of communication and that’s how it has been. I enjoyed reading this post and learning about your experiences and thoughts, Cheryl. It’s difficult to learn languages like Chinese, Korean and Japanese because of their pattern and structure. Although some people say learning Japanese is easier. I’m sure coming back to India and being able to talk in a language that you are fluent with must be comforting?

  3. This was such an eloquent post that you wrote, Cheryl. The stories of your experience with language past and present flow so well together 🙂 You bring up an interesting point there when some hesitate to speak English might hesitate to speak to someone who does. It’s like how I get people of Asian background coming up to me and start talking to me in Chinese (which I don’t understand) and when I ask them if they spoke English, they hurry away and really all I want to do is help them. But as you alluded to, it’s all about perception. Some people might really feel comfortable speaking in the language they know or haven’t traveled and experienced how different people speak different languages and dialects.

    It sounded like the tourist wanted a lovely chat with you, and lovely she gave you a warm hug. She must have felt connected to you in some way. Maybe you made her day 🙂

  4. I suppose language is another form of tribalism. Some enjoy adding languages, adding tribes to which they can belong; some are so loyal to their one tribe speaking to another is a sellout. I suspect some is just aptitude, if it’s hard to pick up a new language it might be easier to just “be loyal”. As for myself, my multilingual past was more computer languages than human ones – I’m not sure that counts.

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