Thursday, October 18, 2007

language loss

As promised, this post will be more deliberative and expansive - though still centring on me, as my whole universe does.

Why am I here?

I am here to help influence Japanese school students into learning English; to help them practice what they've learned so far and push them to learn more so they can talk to the big, strange man in the hallway who doesn't speak their language. Hopefully, as they get older, their English abilities help them to thrive in an increasingly globalized world where English continues to be the main language of international business.

Their parents' generation experienced interactions with the rest of the world to a degree never before seen in Japan. English became more and more important. However, many of that generation were not educated in English so intensively. And, by adulthood, many likely found that English didn't actually help in day to day life. Only certain industries and a certain level in the hierarchy of employment required English conversational ability. This will most certainly be less true for the current generation.

Japanese culture right now is in a fascinating flux. I definitely don't have the intellectual capacity to sum up Western influences on culture here. Most obviously, English is everywhere you look. Advertising and signage is awash with English, whether correctly spelled or not, and everyday language is chalk full of borrowed words. When words are borrowed into Japanese, they are translated into katakana, so the sound always changes to suit the Japanese syllabary. Sometimes the sound and meaning changes effectively constitute a new word. Sometimes, they are fairly obvious. For example, 'elevator' becomes essentially 'erebaita,' because the tongue-flap 'r' doesn't appear at the end of words, and the sounds 'l' and 'v' as used in English are not part of the Japanese phonemic (like lexicon, but for phonemes: don't know if phonemic is a word, but that's ok).
I recently read a news article pointing out some Japanese concepts and words of the past that are no longer used, and are now most closely referenced in a borrowed word. In fact, the writer points out that even the Prime Minister used borrowed words as parts of speeches calling for a greater devotion to and protection of Japanese culture. Japanese, in other words, is increasingly being diluted by foreign words. Of course, this isn't the first time this fear has emerged in Japan, or elsewhere. Some people in all cultures forecast the future demise of their cultures, as attested to by current changes in the language.

Yet in Japan, there is some validity to the fear, in the sense that foreign influence will only deepen with future joint economic and political ventures, and because less people are being born to repopulate the Japanese culture and language, thanks to a low birth rate. (This is a very real and immediate phenomenon, meaning a couple thousand or so less Japanese people exist each year). As Indian and Chinese speakers of English jump by the tens of millions over the next 20 years, English will probably gain more prominence in the global economic sphere. Of course, India and China have massive populations to maintain their indigenous languages, even if Western consumer-culture hegemony is unstoppable. Japan's declining population of around 130 million might not provide a sufficiently hermetic stronghold.

And, despite some conservative calls to that effect, neither can Japan seek to defend its language at the cost of its economy. In "The World is Flat," Thomas Friedman points out that developing economies are wise to invest in mass English education programs. If only because the biggest economy in the world is (for now) the U.S.A., English is conducive to business. And that is why the government of Japan - and government sanctioned curriculum- eagerly and actively advocate popular English acquisition. And because of the government's efforts toward that end, I was able to get a job with the JET Programme.

I am contributing - on however small a scale - to the increased use of foreign language in place of traditional Japanese. Simply by living during this time, Japanese people are witnessing and participating in that process. I am getting paid to contribute to it.

How do I feel about that?

Yes, cultural change is inevitable, and I don't think language can ever be a set or static thing - at least, not for very long.

Yet... something still seems sad about the whole thing.

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