English in Japan

This is an excerpt from a conference I’m currently in.

Conference: Language in the workplace
Started with 2 articles: (a) An incident at a small family-owned diner in Arizona, where most of the employees and customers are Navajos: The owners don’t speak Navajo, and decreed a new policy to require the employees to use English at all times, except to non-English customers. Two employees refused and were fired. (b) A bus driver from El Salvador and his coworkers were prohibited to speak Spanish in workplace, because the company had two female employees who felt they were being sexually harassed when they heard the men speak Spanish. He said, “We feel offended, because by telling us to stop speaking Spanish they are telling us to give up our identity. That’s who we are.”

RESPONSE by: emi
Subject: Languages of “foreigners”
As a “foreigner” in the US, personally I try not to speak my native language in public places. This is not because I’ve given up my identity but because I am afraid that using foreign languages could make others feel uncomfortable. Of course I understand that foreign languages are not always used as a secret code, and speaking native language is, especially for beginners, such a nice relaxation in the tension-filled exposure to L2 world. However, I have to admit that the foreign language use in the US often creates negative impressions at those who don’t speak it.

On reflection, I wonder this could happen in my home country as well. In Japan, a lot of people are monolingual and inexperienced in other cultures. But I don’t think they feel suspicious or offended immediately when they encounter “foreigners” or foreign languages. I don’t think they would get people fired just because of the language use in the workplace. Even if they are actually harassed, that would be by the foreigners’ conduct, not simply by the language. You may think they are open to attack and have a poor guard.

RESPONSE by: A (Korean)
Subject: Language power exists in most of the places.
Let me give you an example happening in Korea. Many Koreans try to communicate in English when they meet English speaking foreigners working in Korea. They try to be kind, gentle and willing to help anybody who is in trouble. However, to foreigners who are from developing countries and do not speak English, some Koreans are pretty harsh to them. Forcing them to learn Korean and make them use Korean when working at the factory. In consequence, foreigners from developing countries learn Korean very fast, and foreigners from English speaking countries never learn Korean.

That is a problem in Korean society. Does that happen in Japan, too emi?

RESPONSE by: emi
Subject: Power relationships
Well, I can’t deny that there is a tendency that English speakers are given some privileged treatment in Japan too. I have worked for several companies but never encountered one promoting Japanese language education to their English speaking employees. This means companies, and probably the society as a whole, do not expect English speakers to learn Japanese. Personally I am opposed to that idea though. In fact, I know many English speakers tried to study Japanese but failed. There are not many good Japanese schools (if any, they cost a lot), while there are a number of English schools all over. Also, Japanese people try to speak to them in English. Some of my friends (native speakers of English) are fluent in Japanese. They are usually long-term residents, who realized the fact that it is inconvenient to get by only on English after all. In short, if an English speaker wants to learn Japanese, s/he has to make extra, individual efforts.

Generally speaking, Japanese people like to learn foreign languages. I would like to emphasize that there are more and more Japanese people learning languages other than English: Chinese and Korean are most popular among them. However, it is also true that especially in workplace, Chinese or Korean people have to use Japanese. I heard factory workers in China are strongly encouraged to learn Japanese, because their Japanese bosses don’t speak Chinese.

RESPONSE by: D (American)
Subject: how did you feel in Japan?
Like you are doing here, I tried to limit my English in Japan while I was hanging out with my friends in public. Part of the reason was I felt conspicuous enough just by looking the way I do.

When you were in Japan, how did you feel if there were many people speaking English around you? Were you in a situation where there were more English speakers than Japanese?

One thing that struck me while in Japan, was that random people would come up to me and practice English. It never really bothered me, although it did bother other native English speakers I worked with. While living here, have you had people come up and practice Japanese? How would that make you feel?

Just curious…

RESPONSE by: emi
Subject: Response
I really respect your attitude to limit your English in public. However, I think your situation in Japan and mine in the US are different, because of the preference over English speakers in Japan (and according to A, in Korea too). I’m afraid this is going to be a kind of repetition but even if there are more English speakers around, Japanese people usually don’t feel offended, instead, they become motivated to learn English.

I am glad you brought your experience that strangers came to you and tried to practice English. My English speaking coworkers/ friends often pointed that out and I know some of them are really bothered. This is because Japanese people believe that the majority of English speakers in Japan are teachers (and it’s true, as you know), and misunderstand that they are willing to teach at all hours. Students in Japan are very thirsty for practicing their English. One of my students proudly told me that he spoke to “foreigners” in English WHENEVER he saw them on the train, on the street, or wherever. I got so upset and told him that is very disrespectful. As a Japanese speaker in other countries, I have had some people coming to me to speak Japanese to, but that is very rare, and it never gives me the impression of “practicing”.