Geoffrey Pullum has a Lingua Franca article called “The Social Consequences of Switching to English” that is bound to raise hackles, but it’s so interesting I can’t resist posting it. He writes about the consequences of a decree by Hiroshi Mikitani, the chief executive of Rakuten (which runs Japan’s largest e-commerce website):
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.” […]
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.”
This is, of course, the boss’s point of view, and I’m surprised Pullum accepts it so uncritically, but it may be reasonably accurate — I have no way of knowing, and I’m curious what my better-informed readers think. (For the record, I deplore the idea of a boss insisting all employees switch languages, however tempting the boost in efficiency.)
In other news: Abandoned towers of books appear in New York City.