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Overflowing English

2015.09.28




Miyuki Tani
Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Linguistics, English Language Studies

Reference: www.superdry.com

Have you ever seen the phrase (written in Japanese text) “極度乾燥(しなさい)(kyokudo kanso (shinasai))”? This is actually a phrase used on the logo of the UK fashion brand, Superdry. Superdry is a very popular brand, with more than 500 stores in 46 countries around the world. In London, it is quite common to see young people carrying shopping bags with the “極度乾燥(しなさい)” logo on them. Taking a look at the definition, the words “kyokudo kanso” literally mean “extreme dry”, which, while understandable, are undeniably unnatural Japanese, and “shinasai” literally is an imperative “do it!”, inexplicably enclosed in brackets. Apparently, these Japanese words, while somewhat perplexing to Japanese native speakers, are thought by many to be stylish.

Of course, this phenomenon of using words in a foreign language that seem vaguely stylish, even if their meaning is unknown, is not something that only happens overseas. If we take a look at streets in Japan, the store signs, advertisements, and product names—everywhere we look, it is not difficult to notice that the country is overflowing with English. And, sad to say, that English is often wrong.

A typical example is the sign that is hung in a store front to indicate whether the store is open or closed. There is no problem with the sign that says “Open.” The word “open” can function as an adjective, so it is a correct way to indicate that the store is, indeed, open for business. The problem is when the store is not open. If you walk down a shopping street, you will see many stores displaying a sign saying “Close.” The word “close” is a verb meaning “to close.” Since the word is used without a subject, it also indicates an imperative form of the verb. In other words, displaying a sign at the entrance of a store saying “Close” is like giving an order to “Close (it)” or it may give an impression to be calling on a passerby to “Close this door.” This is quite different from the intended meaning of “This store is closed.”

In many cases, such as this one, one can point out the problem as obviously incorrect grammar and usage. On the other hand, there are cases in which, while not grammatically incorrect, the English is unnatural or it strays from the intended meaning of the original Japanese. These cases present rather more complex problems. When I traveled to Sendai to attend an academic conference, I came across this sign near the bathroom in the hotel that I stayed in. In Japanese, the sign said, “Thank you for your eco-friendly usage of toilet paper.” The connotation of this phrase would be, “Although we wish to welcome our guests with a fresh roll of toilet paper, we are an eco-minded hotel and cares about our resources. We thank you for your understanding and cooperation.” I felt that this was a heartwarming message reflecting Japan’s “ometenashi (hospitality)” spirit.

When I read the English sentence that accompanied this message, however, I could not help feeling perplexed. It said, “Thank you very much for using up all the toilet roll.” While at face value, this sentence appears to have the same meaning as the Japanese sentence, this “thank you for using it all” could, conversely, be construed as a request to “use up the entire roll.” It could be interpreted in a very different way from the message that the hotel was trying to convey. I sincerely hope that there were no foreign guests at this hotel who, after reading this message, have tried their hardest to use up the entire roll during their stay.

Tokyo will host the Olympic Games in 2020, and the number of international tourists is expected to increase even more. Using correct English will be no doubt one of the main challenges, which brings up the fact how correct English can be tricky in a non-native culture setting. For example, Singapore is well-known for its own brand of English called “Singlish,” in which the English language has been heavily influenced by the local language. It is characterized by the use of the suffix “-lah,” similar to the ne and yo used at the end of Japanese sentences, and the way in which adjectives are repeated for emphasis, or to indicate “very.” For example, on a particularly warm day, a taxi driver may say to a passenger, “Today is hot hot lah.” While it is, of course, common for standard English to be used in more formal situations such as in business, many Singaporeans are well aware that the English they are using is Singlish and make no attempt to moderate their speech. They believe that, as Singaporeans, there is nothing wrong with speaking Singlish.

In Japan, on the other hand, the myth of the “native speaker level” is very firmly established. Many Japanese believe that speaking English means having to speak as well as a native English speaker. It is for this very reason that many people will not say with confidence, “I can speak English,” and will hesitate to speak English in front of others. This is a reflection of Japan’s national character of conscientiousness and of our culture of modesty and reserve. While on the one hand, I certainly want to respect the very “Japaneseness” of such diffidence, I also cannot deny that it is one reason why the Japanese people as a whole are said to be weak in English. As globalization progresses, the need for English skills, even within Japan, is likely to become greater than ever. Will Japanese people point at those signs in shop windows that read “Close” and think, “This is just how we say it” and shrug it off defiantly as Japanese English? Or will they continue to study English with their goal being to master it to native-speaker level? The day when the Japanese populace will need to make that choice may not be very far off.

Miyuki Tani
Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Linguistics, English Language Studies
Professor Tani was born in Tokyo. She joined Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank after graduating from the Faculty of Letters, Keio University in 1997. After working in the division related to international affairs, she resigned in 2002 and returned to Keio University’s Graduate School of Letters. She received her Master’s Degree in 2004, and completed the coursework for the School’s Doctoral Program in 2007. From 2006, she held a position as a lecturer at the Rikkyo University Language Center. She worked as Assistant Professor at Chuo University’s Faculty of Law in 2011, before taking up her current position in 2012. Her area of speciality is English language studies. She is currently conducting research into how the different perspectives that native English speakers and native Japanese speakers have are reflected in their respective languages. By clarifying these differences, she hopes to explore the factors behind the structural variances between the two languages.