Saturday, July 17, 2010

Is Using English Really that Important?

Recently, there has been a big fuss about a Japanese company adopting English as its official language. Rakuten (which happens to be the company I will work for starting October) has decided to abolish all use of Japanese within the company by 2012, and all employees who do not learn English by then will be fired.

Sounds rough...especially considering the senile board members are all Japanese (the CEO is Harvard grad so speaks English but what about others?) AND all business or casual communications within the company (water cooler talks and random chats over lunch included) will be conducted in English (even the ones between two Japanese employees).

Now, there are praises for Rakuten's "ambition" and criticisms that the move is completely unnecessary because the company is not that global (yet, at least), but no one seems to be considering this radical proposal from a socio-cultural perspective.

Yes, we all know that English is language of global communication and no language can replace English's global status for the foreseeable future, but by forcing people to converse English in a social environment where English is not required, aren't we glorifying English to a point that it is no longer just a convenient tool for easy communication?

Let me say that I am all for cultural exchanges among different countries (and of course those exchanges will necessarily be conducted in English), but using English within a particular culture with clear distinctions from an English-based Western one?

Isn't that just an obvious sign of lack of confidence in your own culture?

After all, with every language comes certain cultural thinkings that make the language colorful and vivid in expressions and allow the language to display emotions (humor, disgust, sarcasm...). If we are simply using English as a tool of business communication, we keep it simply, straightforward, and completely devoid of the cultural factors that makes English a language rich in content and style.

But we are killing the cultural richness of English precisely because it is completely unnecessary in business communications. In fact, jokes (which are generally cultural-based) in English, even used to sooth the tense mood of a formal business setting, may just serve to confuse the non-native speaker without adding anything productive to the business transactions at hand.

But by coercing people to have even their trivial small talks in English, somehow a message is conveyed that we not only have to talk, but think and act like the native English speakers... if that is possible in a Japanese company, whose employees probably have, eh, minimal contact with native English speakers outside of their workplaces. Sure, there are native English speakers within the company (I guess I sort of count in that category as well), but considering our small numbers in comparison to the Japanese employees, if anyone is going to be culturally changed, it will be us, the non-Japanese, who becomes more and more Japanese as we work and live with Japanese society.

So the result, in the best way I can imagine, would be fluent English communication with all the wrong cultural nuances. Having lived in non-English-speaking countries for so long, I know that English cannot clearly represent some of these "foreign" cultural concepts (especially with regard to East Asia), so the exclusive use of English in a supposedly non-English setting, really, can only lead to really obvious cultural awkwardness, even if the English that is being spoken and written are completely fluent, grammatically correct, and without any foreign accent.

Many in the business world tend to argue that, since the triumph of Western capitalism has been clearly established with the defeat of communism, all (non-isolated) people of the world have been converging into a single, entrepreneurial, individualistic, freedom-seeking character.

Use of these classic Euro-American-centric buzzwords aside, anyone who has lived for a substantial period outside of the traditional Western sphere can tell you the statement above is complete bullshit, even if the countries resided are closely following Western political and economic values.

Japan is a classic example. The country has been under direct American tutelage for half a century, importing everything from democracy to Hollywood films. Sure, a democratic, developed nation with high standard of living has been established, but the political and economic structures of Japan has diverged so much from those of America despite common principles.

And, most importantly, the Americans have never managed to get the Japanese to speak English in their daily lives!

And all this really has to do with the deep Confucian roots Japanese society have developed over thousands of years. A young man growing up in Japan may dress like Americans, behave like Americans, and even speak English, but underneath all that, the fundamental mindset that defines the perspective of the world is completely different when raised in societies with different backgrounds.

Now, some would further argue that those differences in mindsets are becoming smaller because youth in all countries speak some English and learned American culture through English-language programs imported from America.

From personal experiences trying to communicate with young people (using English) in Korea and Mexico, I can confidently say that the enormous cultural power that the Americans perceive that they possess have penetrated not nearly as deep as the Americans themselves have hoped.

After all, hearing English from me, the Korean and Mexican twenty-somethings just froze and stared at me fearfully as they desperately searched for (and never found) the English words to utter back to me in reply. All the sudden, the Yankees cap and Levi's jeans they are wearing became completely meaningless...

And that is the power of language: a culture creates a language to communicate common experience, and the resulting language becomes the exclusive representation of its parent culture. After centuries and even millennium of symbiotic development, the language and the culture become one and inseparable.

So, it is easy to say, forcing taking away the language from the culture is like taking a baby away from its mother. Neither the language or the culture will be destroyed, but enormous confusions will ensue in the language that will not only baffle its native users but also, in the process, reduce their confidence in their own culture for failing to protect the language.

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