Language and inflation

Some Language-on-the-Movers based here in Sydney had the opportunity to attend Professor Masaki Oda’s lecture about the current state of the English language in Japan yesterday. With major Japanese companies announcing a switch to English as their official company language only recently, this was a timely update. Professor Oda’s lecture was based on current media debates about the state of English teaching and learning in Japan. Some of the tweets he showed us were only a few days old. Yet, I’d heard it all before.

The CEO of Rakuten, one of the companies who are changing to English, apparently is tweeting stuff like “All elementary school teachers must be sacked. Their English is bad,” “Let’s fire all Japanese English teachers and hire native speakers” or “Japan has failed. Cambodians speak better English than the Japanese.” I’m quoting from memory so this may not have been the exact wording but it’s the gist of the messages. Apart from the fact that the message that “Japanese can’t speak English” is now also delivered via Twitter, nothing seems to have changed in the many years since I’ve been following news about English in Japan.

Hang on! Japan has invested heavily into English language teaching for a couple of decades. Japan probably has a higher native-speaker-teacher—English-language student ratio than any other English-as-a-Foreign country in the world. If anyone has any actual stats on that ratio, send them in! While the eikaiwa business seems to have slowed down a bit, over the past decades huge numbers of Japanese from all walks of life enrolled in private English classes to practice their speaking skills. Many went abroad to study English in a total immersion environment. All for nothing?!

Factually, all that English language learning must have had an impact and today’s Japanese are more proficient in English than ever before, and the way it’s going, each generation is progressively more proficient. However, the discourse that the Japanese collectively don’t know how to speak English hasn’t moved an inch: everyone with an opinion on the matter still seems to say that they need to start earlier, have more native-speaker teachers, overcome their anxiety and just speak, work harder or send their children abroad in the same way the Koreans do as was suggested in yesterday’s discussion. Regular readers of Language-on-the-Move already know what I think of that.

So what does it all mean? The Japanese have been learning English with great dedication and determination for many years and yet the perception of their English as a poor has not changed. There can be only one explanation: inflationary pressure! As proficiency in English goes up, the bar to achieve the promise of English (a better job, a more competitive economy, self-transformation into a cool cosmopolitan etc. etc.) goes up to. Drawing on Bourdieu, Joseph Park has incisively analyzed the process for Korea: as more and more people learn English and attain the qualifications that promised access to jobs and other desired economic (and also social and cultural) benefits, the market constantly needs to be recalibrated to maintain the value of English as a marker of distinction.

Language is immensely suited to be such a marker of distinction and to reproduce social inequalities because in an absolute, philosophical sense it is impossible for anyone to ever speak “perfectly.”

I fully expect to hear another lecture drawing on media data deploring the dire state of English in Japan in 10 years’ time unless someone tells all those commentators to just butt out! Leave our language alone and concentrate on the real challenges – maybe global warming for starters. Park, Joseph S.-Y (2009). The local construction of a global language: ideologies of English in South Korea
Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter. DOI: 10.1515/9783110214079

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • vahid

    Hello, Ingrid!

    It was in fact an insightful presentation. Many thanks to Prof. Oda and the organizers!

    Since yesterday I have been wondering how this process (I mean this pre-occupation with the Native English Other) is not only at work in the metaphors EFL learners produce but is also entrenched through those metaphors. I remember a couple of years ago I conducted a case study with a then-19-year-old EFL learner asking him to complete a form which was something like this:

    “A language teacher is … because…”

    One of the metaphors he provided me with was this one:

    [A language teacher is a bridge! Connecting two places!]

    And now I am pretty sure that the first place was the homeland and the second place was the English-speaking Utopia!

  • Peter Ives

    Thanks for this Ingrid, I think the idea of the inflationary pressure on language learning is insightful. Knowing little about the Japanese case, I will add that I think theres also more going on here than straightforward inflation, in any even sense. The contradiction you point out is crucial and to the extent that language is a marker of class and a control in the labour market, I wonder how the notion of Japanese in general not being good at English functions in important ways which has little to do with how well Japanese actually speak English (and how that is judged). Thanks so much, Language on the Move is fabulous!!

  • Khan

    Dear Ingid
    Thanks very much for a wonderful post. It triggerd many questions which I would like to ask through an adapted version of Roberst Frost’s poem’ Mending Wall” (North of Boston,1914)

    Something there is that loves a wall,
    That thaws the frozen-ground-swell under it
    And cements the boulders in the wall,
    And fills the gap where people can pass through. The linguistic variations I mean,

    No one has seen them fill the gaps or heard them made
    But they are there.
    I let my neighbour know beyond the boarder
    We dont need this wall,
    You speak Japenese and I Persian.
    My language will never kill yours, I tell him.
    He only says, ” Good English makes good nations”
    What is good English? whose English is good?
    Why is your English poor?

    Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
    What I was walling in or walling out
    And to whom I was like to give offense.
    Something there is that loves a wall. I could see
    My feeble words did not affect him,
    He says again,” Good English makes good nations”

    Thanks once again for inspirational analysis!

  • Great adaptation! The original is one of my favourite poems. Thank you so much for sharing this on Language-on-the-Move, Khan!

  • vahid

    Hello Khan!

    Superb adaptation!


  • Khan

    Hi Vahid

    Delighted to hear such generous comment. Thanks very much indeed. To tell you the truth the inspiration was very forceful.