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Sociolingüística internacional

The Sociolinguistic Situation of English in Japan, by Nobuyuki Tukahara


3. Linguistic ideology

In the introduction, we mentioned the proposal of giving official status to English. In fact, this type of proposal dates back to 1872, when the Japanese society was rushing to modernize itself. Arinori Mori, the first Japanese diplomat in the United States, wrote to W. D. Whitney, the renowned linguist and Yale professor, to ask his opinion on the adoption of English in Japan. Here is an extract from this letter (Kawasumi 1978: 47).

"The spoken language of Japan being inadequate to the growing necessities of the people of that Empire, and too poor to be made, by a phonetic alphabet, sufficiently useful as a written language, the idea prevails among us that, if we would keep pace with the age, we must adopt a copious and expanding European language. The necessity for this arises mainly out of the fact that Japan is a commercial nation; and also that, if we do not adopt a language like that of English, which is quite predominant in Asia, as well as elsewhere in the commercial world, the progress of Japanese civilization is evidently impossible. Indeed a new language is demanded by the whole Empire."

Mori’s proposal was clearly made from the perspective of a national strategy which involved accepting the linguistic hierarchy and placing the State at the highest level. This would be very practical, if language were a mere instrument. This linguistic ideology is the simple "language=instrument". (17) Whitney replied to Mori’s proposal pointing out the dangers of linguistic segregation in Japanese society, amongst other aspects.

One hundred and twenty-eight years later, the above report was published. The following is an extract. (18)

"It will not be easy to ride the waves of the information technology revolution and globalization. The only way to cope will be to expand domestic use of the Internet and of English as the international lingua franca. People should be familiarized with both on a mass level in childhood. Lest there be any misunderstanding, we stress that Japanese is a wonderful language. We should nurture culture and cultivation, sensibility and thinking power, by treasuring Japanese and acquiring good Japanese language skills. But to argue that this means rejecting foreign languages reflects mistaken, zero-sum thinking. It is a fundamental fallacy to believe that cherishing the Japanese language precludes studying other languages or that caring for Japanese culture requires rejecting foreign cultures. If we treasure the Japanese language and culture, we should actively assimilate other languages and cultures, enriching Japanese culture through contact with other cultures and showing other countries the attraction of Japanese culture by introducing it in an appropriate fashion in their languages. English has become the international lingua franca, a process accelerated by the Internet and globalization. So long as English is effectively the language of international discourse, there is no alternative to familiarizing ourselves with it within Japan. Even if we stop short of making it an official second language, we should give it the status of a second working language and use it routinely alongside Japanese."

The discourse sounds different, but it is essentially the same. The argument for respecting Japanese has been included and Mori’s pessimism regarding the Japanese language is absent. However, the linguistic ideology forming the basis of the argument is the same. Linguistic hierarchy is not questioned; rather, we are invited to take advantage of it.

A further point in common is the dimension of the vision. Both discourses are based on the point of view of the State, not of the individual. The perspective of the linguistic rights concept is lacking, which suggests the reason why Japan regards its native languages other than Japanese with disdain.

4. Conclusion

The enthusiasm for learning English does not coincide with the real need for English skills in Japanese society. It could be said that the cause of this phenomenon is the linguistic ideology considering language as a mere instrument and promoting a discourse that simply praises and admires the circulation of language. This ideology is not only political, it has also become established in individuals. Many people learn English when they do not have any urgent need to do so and they sit the proficiency tests voluntarily, personally footing the costs. Let us not forget that, back in 1997, revenue from private language schools reached 992,220,000 euros.

In Japan, other languages, apart from English are spoken. There are even two native languages, other than Japanese. There is also a fairly large Korean linguistic community. Looking back to the past, it would not seem strange to see a proposal offering official status to all of these languages. The first two have been minoritized throughout Japan's modernization process and the latter is the language of the ex-subjects of the Japanese Empire (most Koreans living in Japan today are individuals who came from the Korean peninsula to set up home on the archipelago when they were Japanese, or they are the descendants of the latter). However, none such proposal has been made. The indifference towards these languages is not so alien to the enthusiasm for learning English. Indifference and enthusiasm are the two extremes of the same rule that gauges the value of a language by its market value. Let us not forget the overwhelming presence of English in education and in courses on radio and television.

Throughout Japan’s modernization, a number of proposals for making English an official language have been put forward, and some of these have been the object of social debate. Nevertheless, a linguistic census has yet to be carried out. None of these proposals and debates have had a scientific basis; they have been based solely on ideology, revealing just how fictitious the need for English that has been circulated actually is. A linguistic census is now required, not to discuss whether or not English deserves official status, but to prepare a language policy that protects the linguistic rights of the speakers of Japan’s minoritized languages.


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