The Social Consequences of Switching to English

I commented here a few months ago on the status of English as a planetwide communication medium and some aspects of the “undeserved good luck” that got it that unlikely status. “The race for global language has been run,” I said, “and like it or not, we have a winner” (see this Lingua Franca post). English continues to expand its reach, and spreads at an increasing rate; many have noted, for example, that the European Union is moving in the direction of conducting most of its business in English. But even I was surprised by a recent article in the Singapore Straits Times telling the story of what happened when an entire Japanese company went English-only, cold turkey.

The article, which is worth reading in full, is by Hiroshi (Mickey) Mikitani, the chief executive of Rakuten, which runs Japan’s largest e-commerce website and a slew of other such services.

Mikitani was ruthless: He simply announced that the whole company was switching its operational language. No negotiation. Japanese out, English in. Don’t speak English? Tough. Deal with it. Take night classes.

Soon after the switch he conducted a board meeting entirely in English, and each time a nervous executive in a navy-blue suit asked cautiously if he might explain something in Japanese, the answer was no: Say it in English, or don’t say it. The board meeting took twice as long as a normal one.

That was five years ago. Today, Mikitani says, the culture and even the dress code are showing all the signs of having been altered by the imposition of the English language. It makes the Whorfian idea, that your native language determines how the world looks to you and thus constrains your thinking, look tame. Mikitani postulates that the language you adopt will change your whole relationship to the world, from your clothing to your interactions with your superiors in the workplace.

English “has few power markers,” he points out. “Its use can therefore help to break down the hierarchical, bureaucratic barriers that are entrenched in Japanese society and reflected in Japanese conversation, which could boost efficiency.” What he’s alluding to is that English does not have a system of grammatically obligatory honorific levels the way Japanese does. Think of something rather like the French tu / vous distinction, but several times more complex, and spread from the pronoun system into the verbal inflection system.

Roughly (and I admit that I’m being very rough here), you can’t just say something in Japanese, you have to make a forced choice in verb form between saying it in a direct and plain way (which might seem rude), or saying it in a polite way (as TV announcers always do), or in a decidedly respectful way (usually not used when talking about yourself), or in a humble way (which of course you always use when talking about yourself).

Compounding the problem of how to phrase things, there are also certain linguistic choices that will indicate your indifference to whatever it is you’re speaking about, or your awe and respect for it, or your contempt for it.

The language prescribes the space within which Japanese people conduct their linguistic business and manage their social relationships, and sets up a social minefield. If you were to say arimasu, or (heaven forfend) even aru, in a context where the standing of the addressee called for gozaimasu, then you are cruising for a bruising. Or at least a dose of shocked silence and possible subtle retribution later. A few ill-chosen verb endings and you could ultimately be walked to the building exit on the arm of a security man, carrying your desk-drawer contents in a cardboard box.

At Rakuten the complicated management of respect levels fell away after the switch to English, says Mikitani, and good riddance to it. He had wanted to “break down the hierarchical, bureaucratic barriers that are entrenched in Japanese society,” and he claims the anglophone policy jump-started that. “A new casual vibe permeates our office, with employees happily shunning the monotonous navy suit typical of the Japanese workplace,” he says; he speaks of the language policy “breathing new life into a moribund business culture.”

These very strong claims do surprise me. I would have expected that an all-English-all-the-time policy might improve a company’s ability to collaborate with other anglophone organizations, and perhaps save a bit of money on interpreters, but not that it would revolutionize the whole internal corporate culture. That would have surprised even Benjamin Lee Whorf. By Mikitani’s account, English must be powerful magic.

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