The alternation of desu/-masu with plain form speech and the constitution of social class in Japanese high school English lessons

Sarah S. Meacham


This article explores the alternation of honorific language (desu/-masu) and plain form language within English language lessons in Japanese high schools. It argues that, within such educational contexts, alternation of these different ways of speaking are perspective-shifting routines, to which their indexical meanings are related. I suggest that in a liberal arts high school, the alternation of forms amounts to an analytical practice within which desu/-masu highlights abstract knowledge and plain form frames participants’ involvement in imaginary event situations within which the contingent use of English can be theorized. In contrast, in a technical high school, the alternation of forms amounts to an identity problematizing practice, in which desu/-masu indexes a speaker’s intrapersonal distance from typical “school-like” roles and activities, and plain form indexes an authentic, Japanese insider identity in the face of learning English. These different perspective-taking routines socialize very different relationships between self and school, and, in particular, between self and resources such as second language proficiency, and are thus an arena for the reproduction of social class distinctions.

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