Saturday, 24 August 2013

The Idea of English in Japan

Philip Seargent (2009). Multilingual Matters: Bristol

I ran across this at the end of my digging around for the sociolinguistics module. I didn’t have time to read it then, but it’s clearly relevant to my interests so I read it anyway when a window opened up. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s in large part an extended exercise in discourse analysis, so that ties in very nicely.

The Idea… holds as its core thesis that English in Japan is essentially a cultural commodity, and in this role as a commodity performs a completely different function to what may more usually be expected of it as, y’know, a real-world language. It’s more important for what it signifies than for what it does. I’m not sure you would find many native English speakers who’ve been in Japan for any length of time who’d disagree, but it’s always nice to see it backed up with a bit of research.

The trouble with reviewing anything that you tend to agree with is that it’s very easy just to suspend your critical facilities completely. Confirmation bias is a bastard at the best of times, but it’s especially bad if it’s something you feel strongly about. You can end up just to sitting there nodding along, occasionally punching the air or thrusting the book under the nose of your significant other whilst shouting, “See? SEE? I TOLD YOU!”

I’d imagine.

It’s a trap I think I largely managed to avoid this time thanks to two things. The first is, of course, the language. Academic texts are written for very specific audiences and, if we want to get all high-falutin’ about it (and believe me we do), the choice of language is directly reflective of the speech community the author is seeking entry into or acceptance by. Which here means long words and complex grammar, basically.

I’m not denying the utility of subject specific terminology, but there’s a fine line between improving specificity and thus comprehension, and being actively exclusionary. Which is arguably the point, perhaps. For example –

“…paradoxically, by seeing these features [of non-standard usage] as errors (as the output of someone from outside the speech community), the interlocutors may well orientate themselves towards the interaction by seeing it as a lingua franca exchange and adapting their own usage accordingly, thus facilitating a productive act of communication.” (p162-3)

People speak more simply when they realize others aren’t fluent, in other words.

But this is the price you pay when dealing with academia, and I’m not going to get into that too much here. I mention it only to set the scene, so you understand better the – in context – breathtakingly snobbish sarcasm of the following –

“The first case study is that of Yuka Oishi… a young woman who now works in a PR firm in Tokyo dealing with corporate clients in the beauty and fashion industries. Within the genre of women’s lifestyle magazines this is considered to be an enviable career.” (p117)

Well then, Mr Middle-Aged Academic, it’s a bit rich to (rightfully) bang on at length about the rigid social and gender stratification in Japanese society only to then drop in this incredible snide ‘within the genre’ and ‘enviable career’ when talking about young women’s life aspirations. I guess the generous interpretation is that he’s concerned that his audience will be such ivory-tower hermits that they’ll be unaware of the appeal of working in PR for many people. In which case they really need to get out more. More likely it’s a pretty unsubtle wink to camera, “Thank god the rest of us know better, eh?”

This did, at least, have the effect of knocking me out of my ‘Yeah, you tell ‘em, Phil,” cheerleading. Because while he’s chosen to clarify the relative covetability of fashion PR work there’s quite a bit of other stuff that doesn’t feel quite so well backed-up. It’s not a deal breaker, and I certainly wouldn’t disagree with the overall conclusions he presents, but I did come to wonder exactly how much I was taking as read simply because I’d been here a while and was predisposed to his overall argument. Not, of course, that I’m about to go through it all again just yet merely in order to confirm or refute that. The references list looks far too interesting.

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