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Japan in context: Language skills

English as a foreign language
I’ve already had a bit of a ‘rant’ about the lack of English amongst Japan’s tourist information staff. 95% of the staff in the 25-30 information offices I have visited, up and down the country, had no foreign language credentials. Don’t you find this strange? I certainly do.
(I add as an addendum here that, apart from 2 or 3 cities, I have not been travelling through tourist hotspots like Tokyo and Osaka, where some of the TI staff will certainly speak English. But I have passed through many large cities and towns).


I have always believed that the UK was probably the world’s worst developed country for foreign language proficiency……but no, Japan (I think) beats us hands down on that score. In the UK there is no policy to teach just one single language. It could be one (or two) of several within the EU. In Japan, however, English is the number one language in the schools’ curricula…..and for obvious reasons. So everyone (and I do mean absolutely everyone) will study English for a minimum of 6 years, and most of those who go on to university, will continue for another 3-4 years.


Thinking back to my own teaching days, I would have been very disappointed if my students didn’t have a reasonable degree of confidence in their communication skills after only 3 years of study, let alone 6, or even 10, years. After 5 years of study, I would have expected my advanced level students to have a mature grasp of the language, and be able to communicate at an adult level. So, what’s the difference?

Quizzing a few people about language learning in Japan, I discovered that their teaching method may be still rooted in the ‘grammar/translation’ style, which we discarded back in the 1970s, and Japanese students seldom move beyond a proficiency in only reading and writing. I know I’m going to be corrected on this by people who know better, but this is the message I have picked up over the last 6 weeks, and it has been confirmed time and time again by different people.


But perhaps there is another powerful, historic, reason why Japan only speaks Japanese, has no foreign satellite TV, no foreign press, sells very little (if any) foreign language literature, even in their big book stores….I suspect it is a kind of genetic inheritance from the 2 centuries of self-imposed isolation in the 17-19th centuries, when Japan literally closed its shores to all foreign visitors…..and those that evaded expulsion from Japan, were arrested and many summarily executed…..including the crucifixion of some Christians.

Like Britain, Japan is an island nation….and you may read that as meaning ‘fortress nation’…built on a long history of self defence, of keeping the barbarians at bay.

The Japan I have personally discovered, however,  has moved on a long way from those days. The people I have encountered have been open, kind, generous to the point of embarrassment…..they are a very gentle, smiling, welcoming people who have made my venture of cycling the length of their country an absolute pleasure. And the many many times they have apologised profusely for their poor command English (and I for my minimal knowledge of Japanese)…..that in itself has enhanced the charm of their character as a nation.
You can’t help but love them……

As I was finishing this post, sitting in Wakkanai airport, waiting for the first of three flights, the three ANA staff, who had showered me with noodle meals and biscuits a few days ago, came up to see me in the departure lounge, bubbling with excitement, carrying what was obviously a bag of gifts. They excitedly waited for me to open the bag, and out came a variety of gifts,


all locally made and handcrafted, including what look like kerchiefs with samurai motif, a fan and chopsticks…..and one of them said “For your wife?”. Along with these was a personally drawn greeting/farewell card, with a map of my route through Japan,


and a personally written message from each of them, along with a photo of themselves which they took out on the concourse just minutes before.
I include this PS with this post because most of our (very imperfect) communication has taken place via Google Translate on an iPad.
This sort of thing just doesn’t happen in the real world…..

‘Transmutation’ into the world of translation

Being free of the job routine brings lots of other opportunities. From being a full-time language teacher, I have undergone a minor ´transmutation´ into the world of translation. Responding to a request from a religious order of missionaries, which has a Spanish foundation, I stepped in as one of their translators over 2 years ago.  For several months of the year, I have a gentle flow of correspondence, articles and website updates to translate, but for about 3 months in the spring, things become manic. There is an avalanche, usually with very tight deadlines and, all of a sudden, I find myself adjusting my routines to find the necessary hours to meet their requirements.

Why the avalanche? The 3000 members of the order, spread over 62 countries throughout the world, are following a course of spiritual formation, and the literature for each year (in the form of 9 booklets) is published in time for the beginning of Advent (early December). This means that the authors of the booklets have to be busy 12 months in advance of that, so that the translators can have their input in the spring, to be followed by the copy-editing, graphics, formatting and printing by the late summer. The booklets can be 12,000-20,000 words in length and, because of the ‘technical’ nature of the language and the cross-referencing that has to be done with existing documentation, a booklet can take me (working only part time) 2-3 weeks to complete. In my first year, you can imagine the shock to the system when I was sent 7 of the booklets, which should have taken me 5-6 months at normal pace, but I managed to squeeze them into 2 months of frenzy…….burning both the midnight oil and getting up at the crack of dawn. Exhausting though it was, it gave me immense pleasure to receive the final published copies. As every translator will know, as you are beavering away for hours on the computer, you never have a visual picture of what the final product will look like.

Why the translation? Although the order has a Spanish foundation, and there is still a predominance of Spanish speakers amongst their ranks, the demographics of the order are changing rapidly. They are experiencing much greater growth in their membership in anglophone countries, especially in Africa and Asia, where English is spoken as an official, working language at least. In other words, people are joining the order that have no knowledge of Spanish, hence the need for everything to be translated.

In future posts, I will share some of the experiences (some of them anecdotal even now) I have had in the world of translation. The next time you pick up the English translation of any foreign author, check out the biographical notes of the translator on an inside cover. Though they will get their financial rewards for their work, they do form a disconnected fraternity of unsung heroes, whose job of translation is frequently much more difficult than the original job of writing the book in the first place.

You know what I mean…….?

We Brits famously use language for a variety of reasons other than to mean what the words actually say. Take, for instance, the notoriously increasing use of reverse psychology in teenage language over recent years. Years ago, when something was exceedingly good, it was either ‘fab‘ or ‘ace‘, or some other monosyllabic grunt that obviously meant ‘very good’. But as we entered the nineties and noughties, these expressions morphed into ‘cool‘, ‘wicked‘, ‘sick‘, ‘insane‘ and ‘dark‘, and a plethora of other words too rude to mention here.

This habit of understatement (even reversing the meaning) really hit home a few years ago when, near Alicante in Spain, I entered our hotel restaurant one morning for breakfast and asked the waiter how he was (¿Qué tal estamos, hombre?) and he answered in a most uncharacteristic way for a Spaniard (No muy mal). I had never heard anyone ever use that expression before. So I asked him what he meant by it. And he replied “Well it’s what you British people are always saying: not too bad“. Now this got me thinking. What do we Brits actually mean when we say “not too bad“?

David Cameron

Are we simply undecided about our current condition and this is a convenient way of sitting on the fence? Are we afraid of really declaring our cards by saying we feel great or awful (as the case may be)? Or is it simply unBritish to be upbeat about our own physical and mental condition? What would a psycholinguist say?

Linguistic subterfuge in our use of language was further confirmed when a friend passed on an Anglo-EU Translation Guide. At the moment of writing, our Prime Minister, David Cameron, is confronting some of our EU partners with some very tricky questions and possible changes to the constitution of the European Union. I am absolutely certain that language will be very carefully selected to both declare our intentions publicly and to hide some of our real goals and objectives, with the hope that much will be lost in translation anyway. But back to the Translation Guide. It would seem that the reverse psychology of teenage language is also shared by adults at all levels. When someone says “I hear what you say“, does that mean they are really listening? No not at all. It really means “I fundamentally disagree with you”. But a non-British person may not appreciate the subtlety. So too for the following: “With the greatest respect” (I think you are an idiot), “That is a very brave answer” (I think you are insane), “Very interesting” (That is clearly nonsense), “You must come to dinner” (I’m really just being polite) “I only have a few minor comments” (I think you should completely re-write this) and my favourite “I’m sure this is my fault entirely” (It’s actually your fault entirely).

One of the plainest speakers in recent times has been the King of Spain, Don Juan Carlos. A few years ago at the

Juan Carlos, King of Spain

Ibero-American summit, when Hugo Chávez was at his most rumbustious, Juan Carlos lost a little of his customary self-control. Chávez said some very negative things about Spain and Spanish politicians, and the King lost his rag just inches away from a live microphone, saying “Why don’t you just shut up!!” (¿Porqué no te callas?). A most unkingly thing to say at any time. The nett effect was that this linguistic sound-bite circulated the globe virally in a matter of seconds, it was picked up by a ring-tone company, and by the end of the

Hugo Chávez

day they had sold over half a million ring-tones of the King shouting to ChávezWhy don’t you just shut up!!” For a brief moment, the King had done wonders for a small sector of the Spanish economy. And this led to many other spin-offs: mugs, scarves, T-shirts, framed wall-mounts, bracelets and a host of other things, all proudly displaying the defiance of their King in front of the iron man of Latin America. In fact my own study is now draped with a large scarf which shouts at anybody who comes in with the intention of disturbing me: “¿Porqué no te callas?

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