Berry Gordy (the guy who promoted the Supremes, and Michael Jackson) on “To Tell the Truth” in 1965.

Do you remember what the first question on this show almost always was?

Once a week, I help people here “improve their English” as a volunteer to an English conversation group. I write it this way, in quotes, because it’s almost exclusively the way it’s explained to me. It’s perfectly fine English. Except I wonder why people here never want to get better at English.

Japanese, in general, and many people worldwide are usually a step or two ahead of us in foreign languages. In America, it’s mostly English–unless you go to distinct ethnic groups like today’s Hispanic/Latino or Chinese communities.

So even someone out to improve their English is already quite far ahead in the multiple language department.

The other day I was meeting new people to talk to them. Mostly, when I am asked my name it’s very polite, like “If you would please give me your name,” or “if I could have your name”. Again, it’s all fine, as hyper-polite language goes. And a lot farther along the road of knowledge than I am with Japanese.

Afterward, I thought about this a bit. And it brings me to the link above.

Back when I was really, rully little, there was one of the original incarnations of the TV show called “To Tell the Truth” (I’ll abbreviate the name here and there.) To me, this TTTT was the authentic Truth. The one MC’ed by Bud Collyer, Johnny Olsen (later of Price is Right fame) announcing. And a panel with Peggy Cass, Orson Bean with the pencil tucked above his ear, Kitty Carlisle and Tom Poston.

This clip is one of the best floating out there the past couple years. A delight. Because you can watch a changing America as it was changing, and not just with the Motown phenomenon and cross-over music. But even, the master of ceremonies still pitched the sponsoring product right on the dais. The background music/theme has that early 1960’s peppy optimism to it. A certain sort of television majesty, but toned down for the suburban housewife crowd. (I think the show ran at night, though.) It wasn’t quite the 1950’s, like: AND NOWWWWW! THROUGH THE MIRACLE OF TELEVISION, THE CBS TELEVISION NETWORK IS PROUD TO BRING YOU ANOTHER INSTALLMENT OF “TO TELL THE TRUTH!”

In the clip, everything was just normal for 1965, and now just seems so familiar and distant at the same time. Definitely another time. Definitely not another place. But still, the feel of another time and place.

You remember how TTTT went? All three contestants pretended to be one person. As Johnny O explained it, only one was the real person and the other two were imposters.

The initial question: “What is your name please?”

Then, the two imposters and the real McCoy would say the same real McCoy’s name.

That’s about as formal as it gets, isn’t it? What is your name? What is your name, please? Maybe in earlier centuries there was more to it. I’m not sure in America, but I doubt it. The President has always been called Mister. So . . .

Where are the young Japanese getting the idea that you throw on anything much beyond “would you please [tell me your name]”, even, in that question? And that’s quite a lot. It’s important to be polite (most of the time), but English doesn’t have keigo (specific verb forms and language directed towards polite speech).

Sure, you can make some keigo for the English language if you want. It’s a language with a standard, but it also has become pretty “open source” as it’s traveled the world.

But I just wonder, who is teaching “improve” to the exclusion of “get better at”? Is it because (as I suspect):

improve is just one word,


get better at

has the multi-purpose verb “get”,

an adjective, and comparative of good (good, better, best),

and then one of those, OH NO!, prepositions (that you really can’t speak English without.)

People suggest to me that improve is really the right word, and get better at is somehow casual or a slang. But I think that’s a total misreading of English.

If anything, get better at is a more complicated construction. One, though, that is more likely to get English learners to that point where they are comfortable with the language. Maybe not sound so much like they are addressing the Roman Senate, which Latinate vocabulary tends to do.

Back when Nova was pitching its business model here, they said that conversational English was somehow different than “the formal English that the Japanese learn in school”. I am convinced, though, that the Japanese aren’t learning English in school. They are learning something that was designed by the Japanese bureaucracy of the day (maybe back when that episode of To Tell the Truth first aired), to be a substitute English. One suitable for creating a frustrating start to learning a language. One that is not based on an understanding of English and how it works.

I sit there and sometimes feel like a magician when I write out one-word, one-syllable-each sentences. There’s a skepticism that it isn’t really authentic. I can tell. But then, I’m thinking, what do you think is the real thing, then?

Berry Gordy, by the way, not only discovered the Supremes and a number of the popular African-American groups of the 1960’s who made it big. He also put the Jackson Five in the spotlight some years after this episode. He was present at the memorial ceremonies for Michael Jackson this summer. So if you saw them first, you might know which contestant is the real Berry Gordy.