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Top>Opinion>Pursuing the Plurality of Identity


Yasuaki Nakagawa

Yasuaki Nakagawa [Profile]

Pursuing the Plurality of Identity

Yasuaki Nakagawa
Professor, Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Linguistics, phonetics, French language studies

1. What is "foreign languages" in Japan?

The general trend of public opinion is that English alone is sufficient as a foreign language in the globalizing modern Japan. Starting from the 2011 school year, "foreign language activities" have become compulsory for fifth and sixth graders in elementary school. "Foreign language" here actually refers to the English language, as in the cases of middle schools and high schools.

Language has a practical aspect as a communication tool, and judging from this aspect, English is continuing to play the role of the intermediary language now and in the foreseeable future as globalization spreads primarily across the fields of the economy, military, and information transmission. Such reasoning, it is fair to say, lies at the center of the idea of emphasizing the importance of learning English as well as its promotion.

2. What does it mean to learn a new language?

One may wonder how the learning of a new language can affect the person learning the new language. Let us take a look at the relationship between language and human society. Saussure stated that "Language functions in activities directed between individuals, societies, and cultures. From this perspective, language is a collective representation as well as a social system." This means that language is a system of signs, which is composed of the inextricable association of the sounds and meanings of these signals, and the relationship between the sounds and meanings is determined freely in one community of language culture. The community is established by people who use their language in accordance with the rules, express themselves, understand others, and live within the limits of their customs as social human beings in the society that they belong to. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states, "We make distinctions in the world of nature in accordance with the lines established by our mother tongues. This systematization is carried out largely through the language systems that work in our minds. We make distinctions in the natural world, systematize and conceptualize them, and regard them as significant. It is mainly because agreements have been established among us on the systematization of the natural world. These agreements reach every part of our language community but can neither be explicit nor clearly stated. These conditions absolutely must be complied with, however. We are therefore completely unable to exchange words unless we acknowledge the systematization of the data prescribed by these agreements and the method of distinction." As above, language defines how humans perceive things to some extent. There is still ongoing debate about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but the latest research based on psychological experiments concludes that the hypothesis is basically correct.

3. Subject of perception and object of perception

Language is significantly influenced by human perception. Put another way, to learn a new language is to acquire the world of that language. For a person who belongs to a particular society, the acquiring of that society's language is necessary for that person's humanization and socialization. Socialization occurs by humanization through language, in other words, by the acquisition of the means of entering the world with information as a medium, through the formulation of the subject with the formulation of the self and having contact with one's environment. Language formulates along with the world. A unique way of perceiving things that language has to offer, or a different vision of the world, is formulated.

4. Plurality of identity

By learning other languages, we can obtain new ways of seeing things and recreate ourselves with new meaning and newly found values. Since perception through language is materialized through this representational system, the selves must be formulated as human subjects with the same capacity, through comparisons and contrasts made between the mother tongue and other languages. It is said that the changing of language is the changing of people. This is because thoughts change when language changes. By learning multiple languages, one can find multiple selves. This is the establishing of an other within oneself, which leads to the understanding of others. This also means the true understanding of oneself. By establishing lingual plurality and a multifaceted self within a single subject, one can see oneself clearly through the mirror of others.

5. The possibilities of pluralingualism

Language planning based on this kind of perspective is taking shape in the EU. So-called multilingualism is a language policy for the knowledge of multiple languages (emphasis on the practical side of operational capability) or a policy where educational institutions provide the opportunity for multi-language education and encourage its learning where there is a state in which multiple languages coexist in a single society (or nation). On the other hand, the pluralingualism is based on the idea that language and culture are closely connected. If as many foreign languages as possible are studied with an understanding of other cultures, and if one's own culture could be relativized through this, one could have more respect for the cultural identities and diversities of others. That is, the pluralingualism aims for people and societies which, not isolating each language culture, but rather by extending the plurality of the language from language culture of the individual, the smallest unit, through the plurality of language within a household, to the plurality of the language of a social group, activate this plurality of language, culture, and furthermore, identity, and mutually. Language education based on such pluralingualism is an education that sees identity not as a singular entity but as multiple entities.

We actually all belong to one group or another, whether it is a home (family), community, nation, gender, occupational group, generaton, or other such group. This is also true with hobbies and preferences. The reason that we are able to find our own identities is because we are almost always a part of multiple groups of people. It is also because we have the freedom to select from among different relationships with others which ones we see as the most suitable to fit into various situations. This plurality of identity is reinforced by the plurality of language, and ensures the plurality of culture that is the other side of the same coin.

Yasuaki Nakagawa
Professor, Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Linguistics, phonetics, French language studies
Born in 1951. Graduated the Faculty of Foreign Studies, Department of French Language and Studies, Sophia University in 1973. Completed the Master's Course in French literature at the Graduate School of Literature, Sophia University in 1976. Left the Doctoral Course in French Literature at the Graduate School of Literature, Sophia University, upon completing course requirements in 1979. Appointed to current post in 1997 after having served as Assistant Professor on the Faculty of Policy Studies at Chuo University from 1994.
Current research subjects include cognitive linguistics with the theme of spatial perception.
Major publications include "Comparative Studies of Japanese and Foreign Languages IX 'Japanese and French' -Voice and Nonverbal Behavior" [Nihongo To Gaikokugo Tono Taishou Kenkyuu IX 'Nihongo To Furansugo' -Onsei To Higengo Koudou], (co-authored, Kurosio Publishing, 2001). Translation work is "Choice of Words" [Go No Sentaku]. Co-translator, (Hakusuisha Publishing, Collection "Que sais-je?", 2001)