Thursday, October 12th, 2017...4:31 pmborchert

Learning to Read English across the Seas

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Shortly after I turned one year old my family moved from their apartment in Chicago, Illinois to a little one story house with paper windows in Shinmatsudo, Japan. We lived in Japan for about 5 years before returning to America to live in Cleveland, Ohio. After returning we stopped speaking Japanese and I largely forgot the language.

I learned Japanese simultaneously with English however I did not learn to read Japanese and English at the same time. While my memory of this time is somewhat patchy my mother has informed me that my older brother, Andrew, and I learned Japanese by first mimicking the cadence of the language while the words were just nonsense. Later, once my brother and I were fully bilingual, we would surprise old Japanese people when they were talking about us on the train. These people saw two small white boys and assumed they were safe to talk about us. Quite the surprise when I would turn around and respond to them.

As long as I have been alive my parents have read stories to me and that is part of  how I learned to read. After learning the Alphabet while we were still living in Japan I would try to practice as much as possible. My favorite thing to do while we were in a taxi would be to read all the english on the signs in Japan. English words are far more common in the Japanese public space than you would think most likely because of World War II. I wonder what was going through the Taxi driver’s head when he hears from the back a little white boy reading the english signs that we passed and then later I would ask him questions in Japanese.

To this day I still love to read the signs on shops as I am driving by. I am sure that people think that I am insane as they are in the passenger seat staring at their phone and I just randomly call out “marriot” or “sheds for sale” but I can’t shed my roots.


  • I wish I could’ve started learning another language when I was that young. Do you find that you think about some components of English differently because of the influence from Japanese, or vice versa?

  •   Rachel Lockwood
    October 13th, 2017 at 10:17 pm

    Hey Theo. It’s cool to read this post after our conversation the other day in the Underground! I can picture you more clearly now as I read your post reading all of the signs in English. Do you know if learning to read in Japan influenced your current interests in types of books you enjoy to read? Did you have any access to English books while you were in Japan. Thanks for sharing, and for making me chuckle when you mentioned that you still read the signs that you pass today.

  •   Professor Seiler
    October 14th, 2017 at 11:19 am

    Theo–this is such a great post. Like Kara and Rachel, I want to thank you for sharing it. I’d be curious to talk with you more about how you think learning / reading bilingually as a kid has shaped not just your language capacity but also your habits of mind and your sense of yourself/the world.

  • I’ve seen the whole assuming they don’t understand you thing happen all the time, either to me by english-speakers in the street or in Korean to my White-Korean friends. Did people ever gawk at you or take photos of you? My half-white half-korean friend lived in North Korea for a year and everyone was really invasive towards her, but it’s really weird because they kind of don’t mean any harm. I do the reading signs as I walk down the street thing too, but most of the time, I’ll do it in eccentric, weird accents so it doesn’t sound like the actual words anymore

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