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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

January 10, 2012

Language Wars: This is Japan! Speak Japanese!

Recently, while in Vancouver I overheard two Asian men, likely Vietnamese, conversing in that language in a supermarket. I felt myself burning up inside. This is Canada! An English-speaking country! 'Speak English!' I thought to myself. Later, on the same trip I met up with my brother and his wife, who is originally from Thailand, at their home. Occasionally, my brother spoke to her in Thai. I couldn't stand it any longer. Why were these foreign languages creeping into English territory! "Speak in English! This is Canada!" I scolded him. Then he swore at me-- which was OK because he did it in English.

All right, I confess. Neither of the two anecdotes above really happened. However, I've met, both in Japan and elsewhere (often at linguistics conferences), people who seem to think that it would be a natural reaction-- that not only are native-English speakers generally linguistic chauvinists but also believe that such attitudes are default settings-- acceptable, normal behaviour regarding one’s mother tongue. Not surprisingly such people are likely to take a similar attitude with their own languages. Yes, I've been told, bold-faced, that I would certainly feel chafed if I heard people not speaking English in Canada, wouldn't I??? (putting the whole French issue aside for a moment).

As (I imagine) with most readers of this blog, my answer is absolutely not. It is unthinkable that I would ever think, let alone react, like that. In fact I will speak to my wife in Japanese anywhere in the world-- if only the two of us are talking. My rule is that on any given occasion the most acceptable language is that language which aids in reaching whatever the communicative goals are. Language is a tool and I'll use whichever tool is most likely to get the job done. As a tourist in a Anglophone country I will learn the greetings in the local tongue but beyond that will have to depend on English (sometimes apologetically so). The fact that my mother tongue happens to be the most widely spoken and understood in the world doesn't change the fact that this is the language that is going to get the job done for most outsiders.

I don't like English

My students often assume that English is or was my favourite subject. But I don't particularly like English. Nor do I dislike it any more than I like or dislike your average, ohhh, shovel. My mother tongue has little emotional impact for me. It is merely a tool, a means to some communicative end. But it seems that quite a few people find this hard to believe.

The idea that a language can have a personal, emotional impact or be treated as a political weapon, having any function beyond being simply a means of communication, is hard for me to absorb. I can remotely imagine being raised using a rarely-heard tongue which has since been superseded by linguistically hegemonic forces and feeling it tied to my personal identity-- but for me that's an academic exercise.

In fact, I've often gone out of my way to place myself in situations where I can't or won't hear English-- especially during my backpacker days when I ventured through about 50 countries all over the globe- a majority in which English was not widely used. I never felt that a part of me was lost in such English black holes, rather I felt stimulated by the unfamiliar environment. But maybe it's easy to feel this way when yours is the big language on the block.

‘We feel ashamed when this happens’

Recently I visited a tiny, nondescript, but unique craft beer shop located in the absolute suburban boonies of Kawasaki which from the outside looks just like your average Mom 'n Pop shop from the 60s. The proprietors (three middle-aged Japanese sisters who love craft beer- especially Belgian brews) were extremely happy to chat with me during my visit since I had come 'all the way from Miyazaki'. I asked them if they get many foreign customers (Japan-based beer connoisseurs may know of them online). A handful, they said. Can they all speak Japanese? I asked. No. What should we do then? How can we improve our English to speak to them? We feel ashamed when this happens.

I told them that it wasn't incumbent upon them to learn English when the visitor is on their turf. It was the visitor's responsibility to learn the local language. And if the person was in Japan only temporarily I'm sure they could muddle through basic beer talk and purchases, but that there was hardly obligation for the sisters to learn English solely for this purpose-- and certainly not to the point of feeling ashamed. They were both shocked and relieved to hear this response, as if they didn't expect it at all. They assumed that English-speakers assumed (or even deserved) some type of linguistic entitlement.

There seems to be a widespread belief in Japan that somehow Japanese are obligated to speak English to Westerners, and more to today's point, that somehow we expect or demand it. Because of this, some who can’t speak English feel a sense of shame or even dereliction of duty. And for some, this (unfounded for the most part) belief can lead to resentment and overt defensiveness.

‘You’re forcing me to use English’

Among those who are most prone to this response are, ironically, Japanese professors of English or other academics who are proficient in English (although this phenomenon is hardly limited to Japan). It seems that some see using English in Japan as a kind of kowtowing, the appeasement behaviour of submissive colonial subjects. I know of some cases where professors of English actually have rules that absolutely all conversations that take place between Japanese staff and non-Japanese staff must be in Japanese-- of course this includes all teacher meetings and briefings too. I know of cases where a Professor of English has demanded that non-Japanese English teachers give him a report in Japanese wholly and self-admittedly for the sake of testing that NJ teacher's Japanese level. I know of a few who tell their students in their initial classes things like, "I hate English".

Once I asked (in Japanese of course) one such Professor why he held this type of policy. He answered that if foreigners weren't functional in Japanese they would be 'forcing' him to use English, which he seemed to regard as a particular burden. This, he added, represents typically arrogant Anglo-Saxon self-centeredness-- the assumption that eveyone had to speak English to them (yes, I know that Anglo-Saxons are often wrongly conflated with NES). This was followed by the predictable, "This is Japan. They should speak Japanese!" mantra.

But most notable to me was the fact that the offense taken did not seem to be concerned with functionality, that such an NJ would be more useful if they were more proficient at Japanese, but was more emotionally laden-- that a lack of Japanese proficiency automatically constituted a type of cultural, even personal, disrespect.

I've also met some academics and intellectuals who believe that Anglo-Saxon native English-speakers in particular are on a very conscious mission to propagate their language, willfully and acting as catalysts in making the language a global standard-- hoping to put ourselves in the linguistic driver's seat while everyone else is a mere passenger. And that we think this should be the case, believing English to be a superior language and all. (No, the ELTNews doesn't get kickbacks from the British Council).

Competing lingua francas in the workplace

English teachers in Japan in particular face a dilemma in this regard because there are competing lingua franca forces at play in our daily lives. Our basic working language is English, at least in the classroom. And there is no shortage of Japanese colleagues who prefer to interact in English. Now, I've blogged on this point before (in 'The Politics of Hello') but who am I to deny the Gakucho, who speaks English very well, when he opens a dialogue with me in English.

Oddly though, the are also many who open dialogues with me in English but later, when talking to others, begrudge my alleged 'insistence' upon using English-- they seem to have assumed that I can not or will not use Japanese from the outset. (Sometimes students believe this too- even though I occasionally give some information or a summary in fluent Japanese in class they are surprised when they nervously come to my office for something and discover that I can and will deal with them in Japanese-- if that's the language they'd prefer to talk in).

The 'J or E?' dilemma

On the other hand, what should the protocol be when, at a meeting held in Japanese, a senior professor asks me a question-- in English? Since all other committee members are Japanese and have varying degrees of competency in English I think Japanese provides the most functional response, although I may add a brief English summary to please the questioner (who may have asked because he/she doesn't know I can manage in Japanese).

On the other hand, if Professor A addresses me in English and I reply in English, Professor B, who is standing beside A, might well assume that Professor A is kowtowing to the arrogant neo-colonialist. Then B may think- Why don't his type bother to learn the local lingo? On the other hand, if I answer Professor A in Japanese it might sound like I'm not playing his game, that I will choose the mode of discourse, and moreover am insinuating that A's English isn't good enough to engage him/her in. It's a dilemma.

I also have a minor dilemma when walking into Indian or Turkish (or similar) restaurants in Japan. Which language is going to be the most functional? Since their daily working language with most customers is going to be Japanese that would be my first choice. But sometimes they greet and treat me in English. If I sense that they are more comfortable in English then I'll go that route. However, if I use English from the outset I'm afraid I might come across as your typical Panama-hatted, white-suited "Speak to me in mah language boy!" plonker. And yet again on the other hand I may look like a show off or somehow unnatural using Japanese when the restaurant staff is perfectly conversant in English (though in fact they often are not).

The reciprocal use of English

I've had students in Japan though who've argued that when they go abroad as tourists they try to use English so when foreign tourists visit Japan they should learn Japanese. I remember once asking such a student where they had used English abroad and they answered, "Thailand, Italy, and France". Hmmm.

I delicately mentioned that if we are to hold the principle of language equality then tourists and other visitors from Thailand, Italy and France should also speak English in Japan since no one in this entire equation is a native-English speaker. The reciprocal use of English as a second language holds both ways. Since they were still perplexed, I added, "Well you didn't speak Thai, their native tongue in Thailand right! You used English. So..." The point was made. Then again, some of these students were the same ones who thought I must live in an American-style house (while I was in Tokyo!) and that I got paid in dollars...

Of course none of this justifies the attitudes of some NESs who walk into any and every non-English speaking scenario and treat the locals as if they were still living in Bumfluff, Idaho. If you can't manage the local parlance (i.e., you are a tourist, or if that person's English is clearly going to be superior to your version of their language, or if you truly suck at foreign languages but not for a lack of effort) showing at least some sense of humility and moderation is called for-- you are on their turf after all. But the widespread belief that English NSs can't or won't do so is, in my opinion, largely unwarranted.

It goes without saying (although obviously I'm saying it anyway) that if you plan to live and work abroad you should do your damndest to learn the local lingo. You are obviously of more use at any workplace in Japan if you can manage meetings, information and interactions in Nihongo. But this is a functional reality-- like the fact that getting your car insurance or explaining your computer defect will run smoother when you do it in Japanese.-- it should not be an emotional or political one. Interpreting language inability as refusal, or unduly attributing chauvinist motives to the NSs in advance, and thus taking offense against the violation of the sanctity of your linguistic turf seems to me to be a bit overwrought.

Functionality trumps sentiment at this point.

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This also doesn't include the 'panic' effect when you walk into a rural (or even non-western patronized) shop and the assistant goes into "I-have-to-speak-English" mode...
I also find it intensely annoying when asked questions in Japanese by a waiter directed to my Japanese companion, to which I respond in Japanese, but continue to be ignored - as if I don't speak the language.

Japanese professors of Linguistics, at least those I have met, do not like to be 'proven wrong', even when what they are saying is something no native speaker would ever say. The 'old school' seems to like depending on teaching language by rule rather than by common/accepted use. For example, the signs in bookshops saying "Thank you for your coming"...

Oh and being hyper-picky about the content of this post: "this phenomenon is" or "these phenomena are"... but then I'd guess you're American and don't know proper grammar like what we do in Britain. Canadian's the same as American, isn't it? Just like England and the UK are the same country, aren't they...? ;-)

English as a means of communication needs to be effective whoever uses it, and the same applies to any language... which is the point you were making, wasn't it!

Another interesting article, thanks! Pretty much my take on the issue. Though I do think more could have been said on the viewpoint of English as a lingua franca.

Take, for example, your walking into a kebab place in Japan and wondering which language to use. You might hesitate to begin with English. But what if you weren't Canadian and weren't white--rather you were Thai, Brazilian, or Nigerian? Would it make a difference? Should it? I would guess that one'd feel a lot more comfortable beginning in English. Especially if one's Japanese wasn't at a very high level.

Or, say you are a full-time professor but are not a NES at a faculty meeting--which I believe is a reality at places like APU in Oita or Kyushu University now. Several international professors with little Japanese skill are teaching subjects like chemistry and math in English to mostly Japanese students.

I hear situations like this are also appearing in the business world where some Japanese companies are switching to an English-based in-company communication medium.

In some cases, the local lingo is nice, but perhaps no longer necessarily the endpoint for long-term foreigners here or elsewhere. The world is changing very quickly.

I suppose the big NES faux pas in the other direction is assuming that that Asian man at the bar/on the train in Japan etc. doesn't speak or understand much English but then it turns out that he's, ohhh, Bob Morikawa from Yonkers, N.Y. I've been guilty of that.

The whole ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) is a rich and interesting area. As you know, English is now used more among NNS than among NS. But, interestingly, the English used as a common denominator when a Korean talks to a Venezuelan or a Lithuanian talks to a Thai is not an American or U.K. but something else- and more representative of what we might legitimately call a 'world English'.

Hello Mike,

I don't know if this is the best post to ask this quastion, but here it goes:

I am portuguese and I am considering taking the CTEFLA certificate and try my luck teaching in Japan. Do you know if there are many non-native english teachers in Japan? Will it be much harder if I apply to the same job?

Thank you,


Hi Ana.

Having had the same job for 15 years I'm not much of an authority on matters like yours but I'll give it a try (and, BTW, the homepage of this site-- ELTNews-- should offer better links and info tto help you).

NNS of English do teach English in Japan, but the combination of not having a specific ELT qualification and not being a native speaker will, as you can expect,make things difficult. Your best bet will be jobs further in the Japanese countryside, but they will likely be unstable and insecure jobs as well. Get that qualification and try to make local contacts once you are in Japan. As for getting a working visa well that's a whole other matter....

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