My sociolinguistics professor in grad school once opined that the best place to learn a foreign language was in a foreign prison. I assume he was thinking of the advantages of a complete immersion environment, total physical response methodology, and very rigorous incentive structures.
He must have been at least half serious, because he later applied for a grant to fund an audacious experiment to see what innate linguistic structures might emerge in an isolated, silently administered camp whose workers were recruited in equal numbers from communities speaking languages of a full range of word-order typologies and in minimal prior contact with typologically different languages. I believe the granting agency’s Committee on Human Experimentation nixed the proposal, for reasons one can well understand.
What makes me recall this is the abundance of fascinating bits of data about foreign language learning in prison that I’ve been finding in one of the books I’m currently reading, First into Nagasaki: The Censored Eyewitness Dispatches on Post-Atomic Japan and Its Prisoners of War, by George Weller (1907-2002), ed. by Anthony Weller (Three Rivers, 2006). Here are some of the insights of the reporter and the prisoners themselves, arranged under a few general headings.
Tervald Thorpson (Wadena, Iowa): “I managed to go a whole year without being beaten. Americans worked hard in the mine, but some had difficulty learning Japanese, and misunderstanding commands got them beatings.” (p. 97)
Sergeant Robert Aldrich (Capitan, New Mexico): “I was in the mine ever since it opened, but I was more fortunate than most because I learned Japanese, thus avoiding beatings due to misunderstanding.” (p. 101)
Oscar Otero of Los Lunas, a husky New Mexican captured on Bataan, learned Japanese by being chauffeur to a colonel. By refusing to allow him to talk any Filipino [?], the Japanese furnished the coal mine prisoners with their ablest unofficial interpreter. (p. 88)
Dark-skinned Junius Navardos (Los Angeles): “Pressure in the mine caused me to pass out once while working. When I came around in the hospital I found myself with burned patches all over my skin. The boys told me that the burns had been made by an American-educated interpreter, Yamamuchi [prob. Yamaguchi], whom we called Riverside because he was brought up there. Asked whether he had done the burning, the interpreter told the doctor, ‘Yes, I did this, because I thought he was feigning.'”
Leland Sims (Smackover, Arkansas): “Many guards could speak English. One who we called Long Beach, because he was educated there, caught me smoking and said, ‘It’s all right with me, but don’t let the other guards catch you.'” (p. 96)
Japanese for Special Purposes
Corporal James Brock (Taft, Texas): “I was most often overworked by a boss we called Shitbird, usually with a hammer handle or a mairugi—that’s a small timber [丸木 maruki ’round wood = log’?]. He hit everybody who passed him, whether you belonged to his shift or not. I’m sorry he’s disappeared since the camp was liberated.” (p. 86)
Henry Sublett of Cisco, Texas, a Marine captured on Corregidor: “I was down with pneumonia and worked in the mine both after and before. Our first Buntai Joe [分隊長 buntaichō ‘squad leader’], or overseer, used to be drunk all the time and beat me every day for my first three months. He always used to the day start off with a few savas [サービス = sābisu ‘freebie’]—meaning ‘gifts’—of blows.” (p. 88)
Runge, captured at Singapore, was “an old Aussie,” which means he arrived at the Mitsui camp and entered the coal mine in June 1944, joining the Bataan and Corregidor Americans who had already been toiling for nearly a year underground. By February 1945 Runge was instructing “new Aussies” in the use of a jackhammer. He was showing F. R. Willis and Robert Tideswell how to chip rock, the whole party being under an overman named Katu-san [prob. Katō], when three cars carrying coal ran off the rails, causing Katu-san’s temper to do likewise. Saying “Dummy, dummy, that’s no good,” the Japanese promised that he would report Runge for haitis savis [兵隊サービス heitai sābisu ‘soldier freebie’], meaning “military gifts”—that is, a beating. (p. 104)
The idea of the camp administrator, Captain Yuri, was that a prisoner’s main and only job was to dig coal for the Japanese, and his only reward for twelve hours’ daily labor should be his salary of three-quarters of a cent daily, plus a yassamai [休み yasumi ‘rest’] or rest day every ten days or so. (p. 108)
With the arrival by train from Nagasaki of the first Army-Navy team for the evacuation of Kyushu’s largest prisoner of war camp, the final sinkes [出欠 shukketsu ‘attendance, (take) roll’] (Japanese for roll calls [otherwise 点呼 tenko lit. ‘point call’]) were sounding today over the grimy buildings and meagerly-clad G.I.s. This camp, 1,700 strong—700 being Americans from Bataan and Corregidor—has been thinned already to 1,300 by impatient ex-prisoners, mostly Americans, who have hit the high road for the American airbase at Kanoya in southernmost Kyushu. (p. 92)
So profound is the prisoners’ hatred of Baron Mitsui’s coal mine, the Japanese military police, and the aeso [営倉 eisō] or guardhouse where five Americans have found a violent death, that the entire camp would probably have been deserted had not the Army-Navy team arrived today. Hospitals filled with cases of malnutrition, diarrhea, beriberi, and mutilated men offer special problems. (p. 92)
Pharmacist William Derrick (Leesville, Louisiana): “The Korean straw bosses were decent to us except when the Japs were around, who frightened them.” (p. 96)
Sergeant Wiley Smith (Coushatta, Louisiana): “We looked across the bay toward Nagasaki after emerging from the mine and saw black smoke starting up. The atomic bomb, falling ninety minutes before, had kindled Nagasaki. Our Japanese bosses kept pointing that way and chattering. It was better than Germany’s surrender, which we only heard about from Korean miners.” (p. 91)
Thoughts on Graduation
Navy Cook Laurel Whitworth (Bourne, Texas): “Leaving Japan for me means not having to cook any more dogs to eat. One day I had to cook sixty-nine, another seventy-three, another fifty-five. I hate cooking dogs.” (p. 94)