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