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Japanese Language

The funny thing about growing old

If you could eavesdrop on a conversation between two elderly women what do you think you would hear? Tales of long ago? Complaints about medical conditions and unruly youngsters? You probably wouldn’t expect them to be joking about death or chatting about flirting with the towel boy at the sauna. 

Yet lighthearted exchanges like these are exactly what Yoshiko Matsumoto, an associate professor of Japanese linguistics, found during her recent research in Japan. In many cultures, but especially in Japan, members of the senior generation have a reputation of being reserved, serious, and even formal.

Prof. Matsumoto, whose research focuses on the social meaning of how people speak, suspected that these impressions might be misleading. She began conducting field research, which entailed observing and interviewing elderly Japanese women and discovered surprising behaviors. She found that rather than conforming to the elderly stereotype, the womens’ demeanors ranged from being motherly and proper to tittering, chiding and gossiping like teenagers.

According to Matsumoto, Japan’s aging population represents a particular perspective that makes her findings especially astonishing. “The generation of people over sixty in Japan were raised before World War II, in a culture that emphasized Confucian ideals of piety and loyalty, nationalism, and tradition.” explained Prof. Matsumoto. “We would expect speech patterns from elderly women of this generation, then, to be quite structured and formal.”

Linguistics Research Dispels Stereotypes of the Elderly

The Japanese stereotypes, especially from previous eras, are of women as subservient, subordinate, as having no voice or language, as practically powerless. In reality, Matsumoto explained, the way these women communicated was not what you would expect. It was not what would be regarded as ‘proper’ speech, but incorporated various informal styles of speech and even popular slang.

Though aging is inevitable, the study of the aged is a topic linguistics researchers tend not to pursue, since they don’t see the language used by the elderly as offering insights into the development of language, Prof. Matsumoto postulates. When reading previous studies of the elderly within the field of linguistics, she found that they tended to unwittingly support the conventional conception of that age group as dwelling on their aches and pains and describing aging as a wearisome process.

“The way these studies were set up, there were younger people leading the conversations into the stereotypes, asking about the subjects’ pain and their past. But often, researchers’ assumptions turn out not to be exactly true. In thinking about the elderly, I was not sure that they were always telling grim, gloomy, painful stories,” Matsumoto said.

Prof. Matsumoto decided to use different research methods to test the assumptions of previous studies. She wanted to study how elderly women spoke in natural situations with their peers, outside of experimental contexts. Yet it was difficult to find participants since she was reluctant to study people she knew well, and she thought that people in institutions for the elderly might disproportionately support stereotypes of aging, while in fact three quarters of the elderly in Japan do not live in institutions.

Conversation Topics Help Seniors Cope with Pain

Prof. Matsumoto finally found four willing women in community activity groups for the elderly. She asked them to carry around tape recorders and to record their conversations with different groups of friends. What she found when she analyzed the conversations was that these older people were talking about food, sports, Harry Potter, personal beauty, and physical attraction.

The women complained about their husbands, defying Confucian traditions, and when they talked about painful topics like the deaths of loved ones, they often used humor in their descriptions instead of sounding upset and distant. These behaviors and topics of conversation offer a contrasting perspective on elderly life from previous studies’ depictions of ailing, gloomy lifestyles.

By recording natural conversations, Prof. Matsumoto captured trends not easily noticed in experimental or institutional settings. While previous studies inferred that elderly people’s bleak language was a natural response to painful experiences, Prof. Matsumoto’s research offers an opposing perspective. She conjectures that though humor seems out of place when talking about difficult experiences, laughing with friends helps to diffuse the pain.

“With your friends, you can have fun together and talk about normal things. You laugh, and it makes you happier – you can return to a more normal feeling quickly. Not every moment has to be terrible. If you can’t laugh, you’re limiting yourself.” Prof. Matsumoto plans to continue researching the structure of discourse and relationships among elderly friends, and hopes that these sorts of surprising findings will have implications for how institutions treat and interact with the elderly.

“We like to classify people,” she said, “but humans are complex creatures. We cannot categorize older people as being in a degraded stage of their lives. We are all growing in a trajectory, and every generation has its own problems, but what’s universal is that every generation expresses its identity and personality through language.”