Many people would agree that English is the language of globalization. English is almost always adopted as the official language of international events, including the Olympic Games. It does not mean, however, that the presumed global status of English is wholeheartedly accepted as I learned from over one thousand comments on a recent newspaper article about the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Let me summarise the article first.
Written by Masaaki Sasaki of Sankei Shinbun, the article in question has the catchy title of “「Water」が通じない！？ 東京五輪にも教訓 (They don’t understand “Water”!? A lesson for the Tokyo Olympic Games”. It reports on the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games under the slogan of “英語の通じない五輪 (Olympic Games Without English)”. Sasaki points out that due to the Soviet-style education system and to the delay in the internationalisation of Sochi as a whole, locals such as police and taxi drivers speak “only” Russian. The writer subsequently warns that Sochi’s language challenge is a good lesson for the organizers of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games.
In the article, which has been featured in the special section on the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games on Yahoo Japan (www.sochi.yahoo.co.jp), an Austrian visitor was reportedly appalled at the inability of personnel to speak English at security checkpoints at train stations. A Japanese woman was apparently surprised that a local shop keeper couldn’t even understand “water”. And an American visitor, who is said to have been to 16 Summer and Winter Olympic Games, is quoted as saying “This is the first Olympic Games I visited where we can’t use English”.
Sasaki explains that this is the first time Sochi, a resort area frequented only by Russians, has been visited by a large number of international visitors. A survey conducted by a local agency last year found that 80% of residents didn’t possess basic knowledge of English.
The writer goes on to point out the growing concern among the International Olympic Committee regarding this language issue as the next few Games (2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, 2018 Winter Games in Korea and 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo) will be held in ‘non-English speaking’ countries. The article ends by suggesting the importance of a technology-based solution for Tokyo, such as smart phone applications allowing communication with foreign visitors.
Indeed, English language proficiency has been central to the discourse of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games from the beginning. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gained a great deal of public admiration when he gave a speech in English at the bidding meeting in Buenos Aires in September 2013. His “impressive” speech in English, which is considered as one of the key winning factors, is even used as learning material how to give presentations in English.
Having secured the right to host the 2020 Olympic Games, Japanese people from all walks of life have increasingly expressed their concern about Japanese people’s presumed ‘poor’ English. The former Tokyo Governor was so worried that last year he proposed to send 200 Japanese secondary school teachers of English overseas for a three-month training period every year. There is no doubt that English fever will further intensify in the years to come, as was the case for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games (Zhang, 2011).
It is against this context of the taken-for-granted belief that English is neceessary to host successful Olympic Games that many of the comments on the article about the Sochi 2014 Winter Games need to be understood. These comments reveal a wide range of deep-seated disagreement with, if not contempt of and disgust for, the English-centric mindset.
Published on 19 February 2014, the article attracted 1,170 comments on Yahoo Japan site by 25 February. Yahoo Japan allows you to see comments in five different ways; (1) timing of posts (latest to earliest), (2) agreement [no. of thumbs up), (3) disagreement [no. of thumbs down], (4) trending [no. of thumbs up + no. of thumbs down), and (5) sympathized (most to least) [no. of thumbs up minus no. of thumbs down]. I’ll introduce the top five most-agreed comments here.
The most agreed (and simultaneously most disagreed, trending and sympathized) comment of all was made by fre***** (handle name) as follows:
“裏を返せば、英語しか話せない連中の自己中 [The flip side of this is egocentrism among English monolingual speakers; my translation]”
fre*****’s comment has received 10,039 thumbs up and 1,760 thumbs down, attracting a whopping 172 replies. The replies are a site of intense debate, mixed between approval and disapproval.
The other four most-agreed comments are:
Number 2: “こんなのはさ、受け入れる側の国も最低限の英語を学ぶようにするのと同時に、行く人間も現地での挨拶くらい覚えてから行けよ。相互理解とか国際協調とかいうならそれが第一歩。[The issue like this, people in a host country should learn basic English, but at the same time visitors should learn local greetings before they go. That’s the first step towards mutual understanding and international corporation. My translation. 8,717 thumbs up; 454 thumbs down; 15 replies]
Number 3: さすがにWater位は日本人も分かるとは思うけど、案外同様のことが起こるかもね。戦後の日本で簡単な英会話本が結構売れたこともあったし、これからは自発的に簡単な会話が学べ、活用できる環境になれば良いと思う。 [Japanese would at least understand water, but something similar might happen. A lot of English conversation books have been sold after the war, and I hope an environment where we can learn basic conversation proactively and make use of it will be created. My translation. 3,415 thumbs up; 249 thumbs down; 31 replies]
Number 4: 「水」ぐらいは、ロシア語を覚えて行ってもいいんじゃないの？そんな、ソチの地元民からすれば、別に英語を話さなきゃいけない義務なんか無いだろ。[Shouldn’t they have learnt at least “Water” in Russian? It is not a duty of Sochi residents to speak English. My translation. 2,740 thumbs up; 124 thumbs down; 13 replies]
Number 5: 世界中どこでも英語が通じると思ってる方がバカでしょ！[Those who think English is used everywhere in the world are stupid! My translation. 2,865 thumbs up; 273 thumbs down; 24 replies]
Here, I’m not trying to demonstrate whether more or less people endorse or reject English as an Olympic language. Rather, I find an internet site such as Yahoo Japan an intriguing space to learn about wide ranging counter-discourses, including disgust for the hegemony of English as a global language and its resulting English-centric arrogance that often unfolds at international events such as the Olympic Games. These are the comments we have little chance of hearing face-to-face. Four out of the top five comments are critical of the hegemonic discourse of English as an international language and it is criticisms such as these that often remain unexpressed in other media, particularly in a country where English has long been equated to intelligence and hence academic, professional and personal success.
Furthermore, Number 2 and 4 most-agreed comments condemn the imposition on non-English speaking residents of an Olympic host city to accommodate visitors in English; at the same time, they are an expression of a multilingual mindset. Indeed, many other comments outside the top five suggest that the real issue is the fact that complaining visitors didn’t bother to learn basic Russian before they arrived, as in this comment: “ロシアは英語圏じゃないから、通じないのは当たり前じゃん。逆になんて英語しかしゃべれないやつに合わせなあかんの？他国に行く事前に、相手国の最低限日常用語くらい勉強してから行け！英語イコール国際的じゃねーよ。勘違いすんな！！[Of course they don’t use English because Russia is not an English speaking country. Why do they have to accommodate English monolingual speakers? Learn basic everyday vocabularies of the country before you visit! English doesn’t equal being international. Don’t fool yourself!!]” These pro-multilingual comments constitute a sharp contrast to the discourse of monolingual or English-crazed Japan.
Overall, interactive sites such as these demonstrate that the role of English as a global language may be much more contested than it seems on the basis of mainstream media discourses.
Zhang, J (2011). Language Policy and Planning for the 2008 Beijing Olympics: An Investigation of the Discursive Construction of an Olympic City and a Global Population PhD thesis, Macquarie University, Sydney.