[lg policy] The Social Consequences of Switching to English

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri Apr 29 10:57:06 UTC 2016


he Social Consequences of Switching to English

I commented here a few months ago on the status of English as a planetwide
communication medium and some aspects of the “undeserved good luck” that
got it that unlikely status. “The race for global language has been run,” I
said, “and like it or not, we have a winner” (see this Lingua Franca post
<http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2015/12/03/english-and-its-undeserved-good-luck/>).
English continues to expand its reach, and spreads at an increasing rate;
many have noted, for example, that the European Union is moving in the
direction of conducting most of its business in English. But even I was
surprised by a recent article in the Singapore *Straits Times* telling the
story of what happened when an entire Japanese company went English-only,
cold turkey.

The article
<http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/japans-new-business-language-english>,
which is worth reading in full, is by Hiroshi (Mickey) Mikitani, the chief
executive of Rakuten <http://global.rakuten.com/en/>, which runs Japan’s
largest e-commerce website and a slew of other such services.

Mikitani was ruthless: He simply announced that the whole company was
switching its operational language. No negotiation. Japanese out, English
in. Don’t speak English? Tough. Deal with it. Take night classes.

Soon after the switch he conducted a board meeting entirely in English, and
each time a nervous executive in a navy-blue suit asked cautiously if he
might explain something in Japanese, the answer was no: Say it in English,
or don’t say it. The board meeting took twice as long as a normal one.

That was five years ago. Today, Mikitani says, the culture and even the
dress code are showing all the signs of having been altered by the
imposition of the English language. It makes the Whorfian idea, that your
native language determines how the world looks to you and thus constrains
your thinking, look tame. Mikitani postulates that the language you adopt
will change your whole relationship to the world, from your clothing to
your interactions with your superiors in the workplace.

English “has few power markers,” he points out. “Its use can therefore help
to break down the hierarchical, bureaucratic barriers that are entrenched
in Japanese society and reflected in Japanese conversation, which could
boost efficiency.” What he’s alluding to is that English does not have a
system of grammatically obligatory honorific levels the way Japanese does.
Think of something rather like the French *tu* / *vous* distinction, but
several times more complex, and spread from the pronoun system into the
verbal inflection system.

Roughly (and I admit that I’m being very rough here), you can’t just say
something in Japanese, you have to make a forced choice in verb form
between saying it in a direct and plain way (which might seem rude), or
saying it in a polite way (as TV announcers always do), or in a decidedly
respectful way (usually not used when talking about yourself), or in a
humble way (which of course you always use when talking about yourself).

Compounding the problem of how to phrase things, there are also certain
linguistic choices that will indicate your indifference to whatever it is
you’re speaking about, or your awe and respect for it, or your contempt for
it.

The language prescribes the space within which Japanese people conduct
their linguistic business and manage their social relationships, and sets
up a social minefield. If you were to say *arimasu*, or (heaven forfend)
even *aru*, in a context where the standing of the addressee called for
*gozaimasu*, then you are cruising for a bruising. Or at least a dose of
shocked silence and possible subtle retribution later. A few ill-chosen
verb endings and you could ultimately be walked to the building exit on the
arm of a security man, carrying your desk-drawer contents in a cardboard
box.

At Rakuten the complicated management of respect levels fell away after the
switch to English, says Mikitani, and good riddance to it. He had wanted to
“break down the hierarchical, bureaucratic barriers that are entrenched in
Japanese society,” and he claims the anglophone policy jump-started that.
“A new casual vibe permeates our office, with employees happily shunning
the monotonous navy suit typical of the Japanese workplace,” he says; he
speaks of the language policy “breathing new life into a moribund business
culture.”

These very strong claims do surprise me. I would have expected that an
all-English-all-the-time policy might improve a company’s ability to
collaborate with other anglophone organizations, and perhaps save a bit of
money on interpreters, but not that it would revolutionize the whole
internal corporate culture. That would have surprised even Benjamin Lee
Whorf <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Lee_Whorf>. By Mikitani’s
account, English must be powerful magic.

https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/15461508c8936cc5?compose=1546285b4d400fcb


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 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com
http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~haroldfs/

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