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English in public places in Japan

26 Comments
By Fatema M Khondoker

With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics ahead, the Japanese government has taken extensive measures to fix, what is often referred to as “Japan’s notorious English speaking phobia.” The measures include, among others, setting up "English villages," "introducing authentic English," "real life English communication," etc.

However, it seems that one thing, which indeed deserves attention, is getting too little or none – namely English in public places, such as advertisements, notices, explanations, and so on. English in public places shouldn’t be an impediment to the acquisition of English proficiency; instead it should aim at the excellence of it. I say, "shouldn’t be an impediment" because in many cases, indeed it is an impediment, as the English is incorrect.

As Japan is a country where English is seldom used, anything written in English draws quick attention even from the people with the least interest in English. Tens of thousands of people see the same placard each day and often it is on display for months and even years on end. In all likelihood, far from having the least doubt of its correctness, the natives take it as a "holy writ" (an expression powerfully used by Shakespeare to describe something invaluable and invariable; for example, “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ”, Othello, 3.3. ).

In fact, the use of wrong  English in public places is widespread. To give just one example, from many: I saw the following message regarding special seats on public transportation: "Please yield this seat to the elderly, disabled…” Here the use of "yield" seems to be an improper choice, as the word involves the presupposition of a fight, after which the vanquished submits himself or his belongings to the vanquisher. Shall we imagine the comical and unrealistic scene in which a weaker party managed to overpower his strong opponent and compelled him to pass the seat (for example, an old man fighting a young man with a stick)?

Then, there are matters of advertisements of restaurants, department stores, and other places where egregious English or English hardly conducive to the development of linguistic skill is being used. I think, besides propagating correct English, the authorities concerned should also think how English in public places could be used as a teaching instrument. For example, in an advertisement, instead of “2 buy 10% off”, it could be, “Buy 2, get 10% off”, which seems to be more conducive to the development of English proficiency. Perhaps, an enthusiastic learner can make much from it. They can make expressions such as, "Wake up early, get success," "Eat good food, get good health" − but how much can expressions like “2 buy 10% off” offer? Pert compactness might be a policy of the business world, but some sacrifice should be made, as English is a crying need for Japan.

In addition, to help people learn correct English, correct English in public places is essential to save Japan’s face abroad. How? After all, the Japanese are known worldwide for their diligence, honesty and dedication to work. But should foreigners find incorrect English in public places, it will dent their reputation, as visitors would find it quite puzzling  and dismaying why Japan seems uncharacteristically careless about the matter.

Fatema M Khondoker is an English teacher and a Shakespearean scholar with the completion of credits for a PhD degree from Hokkaido University.

© Japan Today

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26 Comments
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Here the use of "yield" seems to be an improper choice, as the word involves the presupposition of a fight

I disagree.

Millions of people yield to merging traffic, yield at yield signs and yield right-of-way at intersections every day and never (almost never) does that involve a presupposition of a fight.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

There's nothing wrong with asking people to "yield" a seat. Competent written examples are easy to find.

Shall we imagine the comical and unrealistic scene in which a weaker party managed to overpower his strong opponent and compelled him to pass the seat (for example, an old man fighting a young man with a stick)?

Pedantry combined with verbosity and leaden humour. Someone is too in love with style guides, and not the good ones.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Coming back from a hospital visit end of last week I needed to use a stick to walk because of a very painful knee. Gave up the first train because the train was too full and I wouldn't get a seat for the 80 minute ride. We got on the second one and had the priority seats full of non priority people who didn't "yield" to me. I did manage to get a seat.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

"Yield" in this case is unnatural.

Not wrong. But native speakers would find 10 other ways to say it before coming to this one.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Are foreigners more likely to "yield" than Japanese? It often don't work with Japanese giving up their seats.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Not wrong. But native speakers would find 10 other ways to say it before coming to this one.

Why use two or more words when you can use one.

Oh yeah, lack of education.

You can use your trendy phrasal verbs while I'll stick to my latinate ones.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Far more important to get signage in Chinese correct. Japan has more than 800 thousand residents with Chinese nationality. Chinese nationals are the largest component in foreign tourists to Japan.

Further, there is no one English language. British English is quite different from American English. How many Americans would know that "mind the gap" means "watch your step" when it is used in train announcements? Australia has many expressions that would be incomprehensible to most speakers of American English and many Brits as well. Just between Britain and Ireland, there are differences.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Just between Britain and Ireland, there are differences.

The Irish official language is Irish Gaelic.

British English is the International accepted version since it's the mother tongue of all other versions.

Most Chinese in Japan can read Japanese. Koreans too.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

The problem that English has it that it is spoken in so many countries with so many influences that the regional variances can often be confusing to even to the native speakers. An example is that 20 years ago when I first arrived in Japan I was invited to a beach party. I said great I can wear my thongs! The guy looked at me weirdly and asked if I was gay. I had to explain to him that in Australia the B-sands/Sandles/Flip flops/Slippers (Singapore) we wear on our feet are called Thongs.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Further, there is no one English language. British English is quite different from American English.

Exactly. And beyond that, there is considerable variation within British, American, and other forms of English. Many native speakers aren't as aware as they like to imagine of variations within their own country. That doesn't apply only to dialect, accent, pronunciation, spoken English, or class delineations, but to written English as well. People make so many "corrections" based on their ignorance of acceptable alternatives; based on what they were taught at school (particularly, what they were taught not to do); or based on a casual disregard for facts that don't fit their own linguistic preferences.

>

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The Irish official language is Irish Gaelic.

The language is referred to in English as, fittingly enough, "Irish". Nice and simple.

The "Irish official language" doesn't mean very much, any more than "the English official language" would. In the Republic of Ireland, there are two official languages, English and Irish. In Northern Ireland, there is one, English.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

British English is quite different from American English.

People speaking reasonably standard British English and American English will have little or no problem understanding each other. As a Brit who lived in the States, I remember one or two differences in understanding which were quickly and easily cleared up. One was with ‘biscuit’.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

English in public places shouldn’t be an impediment to the acquisition of English proficiency; instead it should aim at the excellence of it.

Case in point....

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@Bush

You can use your trendy phrasal verbs while I'll stick to my latinate ones.

"Yield" derives from the Old English "gieldan". Nothing to do with Latin.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Why use two or more words when you can use one.

When the two or more words sound natural, and the one doesn't, generally people will choose the two or more, so they don't sound like morons.

That's why.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Why use two or more words when you can use one.

Oh yeah, lack of education.

Surely that could be ‘inadequate’, ‘poor’, ‘deficient’ or other alternatives rather than ‘lack of’ ( two words ) education?

when you can use one

How about ‘when one is sufficient’. Why use 5 words when 4 is sufficient? We could even shave that down to 3 by using ‘when one suffices’.

This is fun.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

When the two or more words sound natural, and the one doesn't, generally people will choose the two or more, so they don't sound like morons.

So why do public signs in English-speaking countries say "Yield to Pedestrians" and not "Give up the way to people who are walking around"

Public signs and notices should be clear, concise and legally precise.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Two phrases that really get me are:

Take Free

Grand Open

0 ( +0 / -0 )

When the two or more words sound natural, and the one doesn't, generally people will choose the two or more, so they don't sound like morons.

You're spreading yourself a little thin there. You decided for some reason that yield sounds unnatural, which is a bit high-handed and a case you haven't actually troubled to make. Now you're building on that assumption to imply that using it sounds moronic.

It doesn't, and there is no shortage of examples (of "yielding a seat") in writing. Yield simply means, in this specific and in one of its frequently used contexts, to give up or give way to another. The author's mistake, and a common one among prescriptivists, is to focus on one personally preferred meaning to the exclusion of others, which is a failure to recognize that words can have a range of meanings.

What is natural and what isn't is even harder to pin down. Luckily for the rest of us, it's not your call.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

All I have to say to this is:

Let's Olympics English! strikes pose

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I am sometimes amazed at all the different languages one can hear spoken in public here in California. American English, Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic of one sort or another, Persian, Russian, Scandinavian....you get the idea. Not all at once, and not all in one day, but over the course of a year, all, to be sure.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

'Yield' in this context is very clumsy and not something said naturally by a native English speaker.

One of the worst examples of clumsy English I've seen was at the YWCA in Osaka, their slogan was 'To be wellness'. They had it plastered everywhere.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

You're spreading yourself a little thin there. You decided for some reason that yield sounds unnatural

No I didn't. It's unnatural. That's not something I decided, it's just a fact of the matter. Next you'll be claiming I decided to make winters cold.

Now you're building on that assumption to imply that using it sounds moronic.

If I as a native speaker started saying 'can everyone yield their seats please', I'd look like a moron.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It's unnatural. 

Signs and notices aren't meant to be in "natural" English. Take for example:

Designated Smoking Area

Smoking Prohibited

Yield to Oncoming Traffic.

Sure I'd sound "moronic" if I kept using designated, prohibited or yield in conversation but a sign should be clear, concise and legally precise.

Are you suggesting that Designated Smoking Area be changed to Dude, this is the place where... like... you can ... like smoke dude.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Signs and notices aren't meant to be in "natural" English.

Heh, so now you've accepted it's not natural, as I've been saying all along.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

If I as a native speaker started saying... 

Your first mistake is to assume that an item of written English should be judged by the standard of how one speaker from one region - because let's face it, you don't represent the entire Anglosphere, and probably aren't from my own country - expresses himself in speech.

It's unnatural. That's not something I decided, it's just a fact of the matter.

As I've said, written examples are easily found. And that is fact, not supposition.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

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