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Culture and Education

Reconsidering the Adoption of English as an Official Language: National Discussion on Language Policy Needed

Masakazu Iino
Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

In the summer of 2010, news of companies such as Rakuten and Fast Retailing (UNIQLO) promoting the adoption of English as their official language is attracting attention. This is not without precedent: the media widely covered the report of the Commission on Japan's Goals in the 21st Century commissioned by the late Prime Minister Obuchi in December 1999, which noted that adoption of English as the second official language needed to be discussed; and companies such as Nissan Motors, led by a foreign president, started holding their board meetings in English. Further, developments such as elementary schools in Japan officially introducing English education next year indicate that discussion of the role English should play in Japanese society has become more prominent since we entered the 21st century. In such discussions, people may often seem to be split into pro and con camps: the opening-nation faction ― who argue that Japan needs English as part of a social infrastructure to survive in the global society ― and the anti-foreigner faction ― who maintain that the worship of English is an enemy of the state as it would destroy the beautiful Japanese language and culture ― playing an emotional tag of war.

Roles of language in society

Language change has tremendous impacts on those who have been using it. You might have witnessed a scene where a politician who usually talks boastfully can do nothing but grin in an environment of a different language. Language change involves changes in power relationships, and groups whose vested interest of the language they have used up to the present is threatened would attempt to reject it completely, because language skill cannot be easily acquired or replaced, and it represents people’s identity. The roles that should be given to specific languages in society are explored areas of study such as sociolinguistics and language policy studies. These fields originally emerged to develop fairly political and practical plans about what languages should be given special positions in a governing regime during war or under colonial rule, what languages including ethnic ones should be official languages immediately following the independence of a nation, what notation system should be adopted for purely oral languages, what educational measures should be taken to instill the effects of such policies into the nation, and so on. Language may often be tightly linked with ethnic consciousness or ethnic identity, leading to conflicts. For example, more than one language is granted official status in Malaysia, Singapore and India in order to prevent ethnic conflicts. In Canada, separatist movements continue among French speakers in the Province of Quebec. In the United States, language-related agendas often constitute big issues in elections, such as whether immigrants who are continuously flowing in the country should be given English-only education or bilingual education financed by taxes.

Also in Japan, along with English education for Japanese people, various language-related issues have been popular topics, such as communication with recently increasing long-term residents from abroad; language barriers faced by care givers and nursing personnel accepted from overseas through EPA (Economic Partnership Agreement); notation schemes based on the new official list of Chinese characters (kanji) designated for everyday use, and so forth. Whereas all of these issues are usually treated in the area of society, culture or education, they seem to have seldom been probed from a political point of view.

English as the common language

Language policies are not only on the national level. There are also ones on the supranational level, such as selection of official languages for the United Nations sessions. In addition, there are some inevitable issues of private or public language selection, such as what languages should be used in business meetings, university classes, signs in railway stations, and so forth. At Waseda University, for example, the School of International Liberal Studies established in 2004 provides almost all the classes in English, which triggered major change in higher education in Japan. In order to achieve the Plan for 300,000 Exchange Students formulated in 2008, the Project for Establishing Core Universities for Internationalization also known as Global 30 (G30) is currently under development and will introduce courses students can complete only in English in core universities around the nation. In some institutions of higher education in Japan, it is becoming more common for both Japanese and international students in classes discuss with each other, write papers, and give presentations in English. In the rest of the world, the European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students (ERASMUS) in the European Union is driving preparation of university programs taught in English. In Asia, some prestigious universities including Yonsei University in Korea and Chulalongkorn University in Thailand have recently launched programs in which students can take and finish courses only in English. These imply that higher education delivered in English is increasingly prevalent throughout non-English-spoken regions of the world. As a result, students can move from country to country more easily today.

The Linguist Kachru said that the world can be divided into three types of regions: ones where English is used as the mother tongue, such as the United Kingdom and the United States; ones where English is used as the second language in the society, such as India and Singapore; and ones where English is used as a foreign language, including China, Korea, and Japan. Especially in China, India, and other Asian economies that are driving global economic growth, English has already been the de facto standard common language, or the lingua franca, functioning as a social resource. A bi-directional force is at work here by which globalization diffuses English, and vice versa. It is said that no other language has been spoken by so many non-native speakers in human history, and the versatility of English is expected to last, in spite of the recent popularity of Chinese.

Discussion needed on the purpose and use of language

Amid this situation, the conservative view of language is deep-rooted in Japan, such as the opinion that the introduction of English education in elementary school would impede growth in the Japanese language skills of children or that it would destroy Japanese culture. While the word globalization gains great popularity, confrontation has emerged in the areas of politics and public education between advocates and resistance forces who are alarmed by opening the market or the academic community to the world. During the Lost Two Decades in Japan, on the other hand, neighboring countries and regions were rapidly introducing policies for expanding the use of English. As a result, it is now obvious that the English skill of Japanese people is extremely low, especially compared with the elite overseas. Some may argue about the root cause being that Japanese has a linguistic structure that is distinct from other languages, that there is no need for foreign languages living in Japan, or that the English educational system in Japan is responsible. It is, however, probably the lack of awareness on the part of Japanese people that is primarily to blame.

I dare to hope that the current movement by some companies toward English as the official or second language will firmly take root, and not vanish as nothing more than a temporary performance. Given that fewer young Japanese people today want to work abroad, this movement indicates the urgency of fostering human resources who have the vitality to make the world their stage, and can be interpreted as a warning of a crisis the Japanese society is facing. In this globalizing society, the time has already come for many people to use English as common knowledge just like the three R’s. We will soon see a society where many people directly enjoy the expanse of the world, which is bridged by English. Instead of establishing specific institutions for adopting English as an official language, people need to get used to using Japanese, English, or other languages depending on the scene, that is, depending on who participates, and in what situation. In addition, I believe that education must support such needs. In order to achieve these goals, language policy must be discussed now nationally.

Masakazu Iino
Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

[Brief History]
Professor Iino graduated from the Department of Political Science at the School of Political Science and Economics in Waseda University, and worked for the Bank of Japan. He completed the master’s and doctoral courses at the University of Pennsylvania and received his Ph.D. He taught at California State University at Los Angeles, Obirin University as an associate professor, as well as at the School of Political Science and Economics in Waseda University as a professor before assuming his current position. He is also a director for the Japanese Association for Language Policies. He specializes in sociolinguistics. Professor Iino’s recent publications include “Language Idealism and Realism in Globalization: Exploring Homogeneity Beliefs in Japan,” in Globalization of Language and Culture in Asia, edited by V. Vaish, Continuum International Publishing Group: London (2010); “Norms of Interaction in a Japanese Homestay Setting: Toward a Two-Way Flow of Linguistic and Cultural Resources,” in Language Learners in Study Abroad Contexts, edited by M. DuFon and E. Churchill, Multilingual Matters: Clevedon (2006); “Current Japanese Reforms in English Language Education: The 2003 ‘Action Plan,’” co-authored with Y. Butler in Language Policy (2005); and Linguistics in the New Generation: Connection of Society, Culture, and Humans [Shin-Sedai no Gengogaku: Shakai, Bunka, Hito wo Tsunagu Mono], as an editor and author, Kuroshio Shuppan: Tokyo (2003).