English at Rakuten.

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.

Comments

  1. Eli Nelson says:

    It didn’t seem to me that Pullum was accepting it uncritically, even though most of the article is about Mikitani’s view. The concluding paragraph seems to reserve judgement: “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.”

  2. On the other hand, India seems to be comfortable with both the English language and a rigid social system of caste and entrenched power.

    And indeed the UK too.

  3. I wonder what exactly they are speaking. Normative American English? Pidgin English? At what level? I can imagine a situation where everyone is hobbled by the same inadequacy of English, or a system where status accrues to those who speak it best.

    Do coworkers sneak Japanese among themselves during informal moments? Or do they live in fear of using it, like students in Indian or Aborigine boarding schools?

  4. “Abandoned towers of books appear in New York City.”

    Are you sure they are not towers of abandoned books ? The towers were not abandoned, as I understand it, but deliberately set up as conceptual art. If anything is to be abandoned, conceptual art is my recommendation. So maybe “abandoned towers” is a vision of better times to come.

  5. minus273 says:

    I have read it somewhere, that the salutary effect lies rather in the fact that everyone fumbles in a very imperfectly acquired, and still less domesticated (unlike in India) tongue, leaving less free energy to bother with social niceties.

  6. But nobody is sure that they are saying what they mean, and nobody is sure that they are understanding what is meant.

  7. Perhaps it is more pertinent that the firm is an e-commerce company which must already have modernised its working practices to a certain extent in order to succeed. The staff may already have been keen to change strict Japanese hierarchies and behaviour but just needed that extra push to do so which switching to company English achieved.

    I imgaine it may not be quite convincing to be ordered by the boss in Japanese not to behave according to Japanese social norms.

  8. David Eddyshaw says:

    The Meiji statesman Mori Arinori

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mori_Arinori

    proposed the abandonment of Japanese altogether in favour of English.

  9. John Roth says:

    I can’t say I’m surprised. I’ve heard reports for a long time that native Japanese speakers prefer to say certain things in English because it bypasses the status system built into Japanese. As far as Whorf is concerned, I take language to be a cultural artifact in that sense: it reflects what the culture thinks is important. In Japan, markers of status are very overt, in Anglo English, markers of status are very subtle and kept out of sight. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

  10. Perhaps it is more pertinent that the firm is an e-commerce company which must already have modernised its working practices to a certain extent in order to succeed. The staff may already have been keen to change strict Japanese hierarchies and behaviour but just needed that extra push to do so which switching to company English achieved.

    An excellent point that had not occurred to me.

  11. But nobody is sure that they are saying what they mean, and nobody is sure that they are understanding what is meant.

    We never are.

  12. J. W. Brewer says:

    In earlier centuries (and continuing closer to the present in some regional varieties), English had a substantially wider inventory of lexical and other conventions used to signal the relative social-hierachy position of speaker and addressee than it currently (in most varieties) does. Many of those have become arch. or obs. as most predominately-Anglophone societies have become less hierarchical (at least in theory) and more egalitarian (at least in theory) over time. We don’t even have a T-V distinction any more (although we still kinda/sorta did in the 17th century, when the early Quakers pissed a lot of people off by deliberately violating the T-V conventions in order to signal their disagreement with prevailing hierarchical mores). It seems to me that for Anglophone societies it’s much more plausible to think that changes in social attitudes drove the change in linguistic conventions rather than vice versa, which ought to contradict anything other than a fairly weak form of pop-Whorfianism. The weak form (“it is usually comparatively easy in a given language to talk about the subjects frequently discussed by speakers of the language with the social attitudes commonly held by speakers of the language, but often can be harder to talk about things those speakers don’t generally talk about from a point of view they don’t generally hold”) seems pretty obviously true, but at least for me doesn’t illuminate any broader controversies about language precisely because it would be surprising if it weren’t true.

  13. When I speak my acquired second language (Mandarin), which is only at about a grade school level, I can tell I have less qualms about following social niceties, even though I know such things exist for native speakers (including my wife). I have less qualms about making rude jokes than if I were speaking my native language English. I wonder if that’s related to what’s happening at Rakuten.

  14. It never occurred to me that I could just leave piles of books on the street. There’s something to be said for that, particularly since used book stores became obsolete.

  15. I did that with a bagful of books I took to a used book store that treated them, and me, with complete contempt when I wanted to sell them; they offered such a derisory price I just walked a couple of blocks away and left them neatly stacked on the street. I hope they found a good home.

  16. Here in Bonn, they have put up some sheltered places in the street (e.g. an old telephone booth with some shelves installed) where you can leave books and also freely take them. The company where I work also has a place like this in one of the resting areas.

  17. Considering that the most they can get for most of them is $3-$4 each (see Abebooks), what can you expect? I have been putting off weeding my books because I know they aren’t going to good homes, but at best to recycling and at worst to landfill. On the other hand, I just bought the complete Inspector Wallander series for $3.40 per book.

    The phrase “a dime a dozen” is first recorded in 1930, and 1 cent in 1930 is about 25 cents today in real value (that is, relative to what the typical household spends on goods and services, which to be sure has gone up since then). So used books, while not quite a dime a dozen in 1930 terms, are now about two dimes a dozen. Considering that new books were about 70 cents each then, that’s quite a drop in price. (The 25 cent Pocket Book was still almost a decade away.)

  18. David L says:

    Some years ago I took a German class given by a native speaker who had previously taught English in Germany. Catering to the business world was one of her biggest activities. She said that many large German companies conduct their board meetings in English, for the purely pragmatic reason that English is the lingua franca of global commerce.

  19. Jim (another one) says:

    “When I speak my acquired second language (Mandarin), which is only at about a grade school level, I can tell I have less qualms about following social niceties, even though I know such things exist for native speakers (including my wife).”

    Remember “Foreigners have no face.” You can get away with just about anything if you are exotic enough, because nothing you say or don’t say really matters in those social contexts.

  20. Considering that the most they can get for most of them is $3-$4 each (see Abebooks), what can you expect?

    More than they offered me, which was more like a nickel a book. Also, this was a long time ago, maybe not before AbeBooks existed but certainly before the universal availability of everything online.

  21. I once read a National Geographc article from long ago, about the kingdom of Mustang in Nepal, from a time when outsiders were quite unknown. The writer had learned some rudimentary Tibetan, in which he addressed the King. He shocked everyone by simultaneously knowing any Tibetan at all, while addressing the King as if he were an equal, by not knowing the necessary honorific language.

  22. Jonathan D says:

    I think at least part of the lesson here is that changes in culture are more likely to be achieved in conjunction with drastic changes, like changing the language used.

  23. @Hans: Here in Bonn, they have put up some sheltered places in the street

    When I am in Bonn, which is seldom, I always check the stand just behind the train station at the bottom of the Poppelsdorfer Allee. A few houses down from me in Cologne, in front of a little “art theater”, is a used-book stand where I find things to read that I might never have looked at otherwise in a bookstore.

  24. Elessorn says:

    Why are we taking at face value the foreign-marketed self-presentation of the company’s president, who is apparently such a trailblazing opponent of hide-bound top-down hierarchy that he, you know, dictatorially forced his employees to switch working languages by fiat? He’s not even hiding his real motivations, as he waxes about the way this change has helped international investments and his bottom line.

    I don’t know what’s more depressing: that he judges Anglophone self-regard to be so pliable to flattery that a single throwaway paragraph about the culture-changing power of English will disguise what we would otherwise recognize as an egregious violation of workers’ rights, or that his judgment has been proven correct.

    And setting aside the very, very questionable notion that Anglophone culture is actually egalitarian, or that freestyle dress codes actually correlate with worker freedoms, why would we imagine that lack of verb-embedded politeness levels has any connection with equality? We lost the T/V distinction not in the age of the Internet, but in…early modern England.

  25. SFReader says:

    I find it hard to take seriously a man who wants people to call him “Mickey”

  26. Ariadne says:

    It sounds to me like someone with zero self-esteem. The rest is just lame excuses. Ridiculous as a concept, unacceptable as a practice. It wouldn’t stand a chance in hell where I live. Utterly laughable.

  27. minus273 says:

    Meanwhile, English is so well adapted to the Indian context so that some adjectives no longer correspond to their meaning in other English-speaking societies. (I think the closest equivalent in non-Indian English for that usage of classy would be respectable.)

  28. Bathrobe says:

    @Ariadne: It wouldn’t stand a chance in hell where I live.

    Regrettably, I initially read this as “It wouldn’t stand a chance in the hell where I live”.

  29. Sounds pretty crazy to me. I tried looking for the perspective of someone other than the boss, but all I found was this rather middling MA paper.

    It at least gives some interesting examples:

    “Another signboard for milk in Rakuten’s cafeteria demonstrates an instance where interpretability is low: “Milk: ¥80: What a great calcium-rich milk: Strengthen bones. Eliminating annoying. How do you like it with bread?? ” “

  30. some adjectives no longer correspond to their meaning in other English-speaking societies

    From a 19C Indian bureaucrat to his British senior:

    “Your honour puts yourself to much trouble correcting my English and doubtless the final letter will be much better literature; but it will go from me Mukherji to him Bannerji, and he Bannerji will understand it a great deal better as I Mukherji write it than as your honour corrects it.”

  31. Ariadne says:

    @Bathrobe: You’re forgiven. I wouldn’t want you to feel more regrets than I”m sure you already do.

  32. David Marjanović says:

    She said that many large German companies conduct their board meetings in English, for the purely pragmatic reason that English is the lingua franca of global commerce.

    True – though I think most of those companies are actually international.

  33. @John Roth: Even in cases where both languages have the same number of “status” distinctions, such a thing might be possible. I seem to recall a scene in Anna Karenina where the characters feel that they have to use French because the Russian T/V distinction is too extreme for their needs: the Russian T being too dangerously intimate, the Russian V being too painfully distant, but the French V having the necessary degree of flexibility (at least to their non-native ears).

  34. I once participated in a meeting in Brasilia which was held in English. The participants were mostly Brazilians and Israelis but also two Englishmen. The minutes were distributed in English. That was a typical event and I witnessed similar ones in Germany, Denmark and other countries. In Seoul there were very few Koreans who knew any English, and Interpreters were on hand in all meetings. Correspondence was in English.

    Meetings at the Weizmann Institute are held exclusively in English.

    I know little about Japan, but my experience is that some International businesses conduct business almost exclusively in English.

  35. In languages with T-V distinction i usualy use T, and in cases ware almost evryone uses V, i use ‘yu’ (just a simplified ‘you’), so the other person can use T or stik to V. They could do the same in that japanase company (also replacing all the words for ‘I’ with ‘ai’), but the politeness and hierarchy is present in neerly evry sentence in japanese… so if yu want to get rid of all that stuf, i guess the only solution is english, realy (since spoken chinese it probbably much harder to lern, also for the japanese). I just wonder if foreners can understand ennything of the english the japanese speek in those meetings…

  36. Even here in Sweden where everybody thinks they speak perfect English, it’s much easier to detect contexts and subtexts when meetings are in Swedish. Whether that makes a company work better or worse, that depends on other factors.

  37. January First-of-May says:

    Meetings at the Weizmann Institute are held exclusively in English.

    This might be due to the relatively large amount of nominally-Jewish Russian students who could speak Russian and English but little Hebrew.

    (Or at least that was the case when my mother studied at Weizmann in the late 1990s; her Hebrew pretty much consisted of “Ani lo midaberet ivrit”.)

    I once read a National Geographc article from long ago, about the kingdom of Mustang in Nepal, from a time when outsiders were quite unknown. The writer had learned some rudimentary Tibetan, in which he addressed the King. He shocked everyone by simultaneously knowing any Tibetan at all, while addressing the King as if he were an equal, by not knowing the necessary honorific language.

    A similar (though subtly different) thing is said to have happened to Sam Gamgee in Gondor: he addressed the local royalty in the familiar form, because his dialect of Westron didn’t have any other.

    (This didn’t come up well in the English “translation”, where the T/V distinction doesn’t work that way. It’s mentioned in one of the appendices explicitly.)

  38. Pippin, not Sam. From Appendix F:

    The Common Speech, as the language of the Hobbits and their narratives, has inevitably been turned into modern English. In the process the difference between the varieties observable in the use of the Westron has been lessened. Some attempt has been made to represent these varieties by variations in the kind of English used; but the divergence between the pronunciation and idiom of the Shire and the Westron tongue in the mouths of the Elves or of the high men of Gondor was greater than has been shown in this book. Hobbits indeed spoke for the most part a rustic dialect, whereas in Gondor and Rohan a more antique language was used, more formal and more terse.

    One point in the divergence may here be noted, since, though often important, it has proved impossible to represent. The Westron tongue made in the pronouns of the second person (and often also in those of the third) a distinction, independent of number, between ‘familiar’ and ‘deferential’ forms. It was, however, one of the peculiarities of Shire-usage that the deferential forms had gone out of colloquial use. They lingered only among the villagers, especially of the Westfarthing, who used them as endearments. This was one of the things referred to when people of Gondor spoke of the strangeness of Hobbit-speech. Peregrin Took, for instance, in his first few days in Minas Tirith used the familiar forms to people of all ranks, including the Lord Denethor himself. This may have amused the aged Steward, but it must have astonished his servants. No doubt this free use of the familiar forms helped to spread the popular rumour that Peregrin was a person of very high rank in his own country.

    [Footnote:] In one or two places an attempt has been made to hint at these distinctions by an inconsistent use of thou. Since this pronoun is now unusual and archaic it is employed mainly to represent the use of ceremonious language; but a change from you to thou/thee is sometimes meant to show, there being no other means of doing this, a significant change from the deferential, or between men and women normal, forms to the familiar.

    So basically the hobbits live in an archaic T-T world, although this is mostly not represented in the text. The point comes up most strongly when Eowyn tells Aragorn that she loves him, and switches to T, but he maintains distance with V; however, after she and Faramir find each other, he addresses her with T as someone he cares deeply about but does not love.

    All the uses of T in LOTR.

  39. Trond Engen says:

    This is one of the virtues of the often (by me) touted Nynorsk translation: A spectre of varieties with different connotations of aristocratic archaism and rural folksyness. But the translation does not hint at a missing T-V distinction in the Pippins first meeting with Denethor. Maybe there’s no good way to show it if Gandalv and Denethor are equals. Denethor does say

    Eg tek imot di tenest. Du vert ikkje kuga av ord, og du talar høvisk, um so tala di læt undarlegt på oss i sudlondi. Og me kjem til å ha trong for alle høviske folk, vere dei store elder små, i dagane som kjem. Sver meg truskap no!

    “I accept your service. You are not cowed by words, and you speak courteously, even if your speech sounds strange to us in the southern lands. And we will need all courteous people, be they big or small, in the coming days. Swear allegiance to me now!”

    Denethor is speaking in one of the early normalizations of Nynorsk, Gandalv in a later and less archaic one, and so is Pippin, stylish and saga-like in the wording, but his Hallingdal dialect is shining through in some expressions. With the chief guard Beregond they both start following the normals, but in a less stylished form, and soon their dialects start sieving through. Later, when Pippin meets Bergil Beregondsson, he is more folksy and in full dialect mode, and the boy speaks his own Telemark dialect.

  40. That sounds delightful!

  41. Trond Engen says:

    It is delightful. It’s even using something close to my dialect for the orcs.

  42. There is a lot of class subtext in Pippin’s interactions with the Gondorians that isn’t spelled out in the text. With Denethor, he is so familiar that there is a rumor that his is ernil i perrianath, prince of the halflings–which, in fact, he actually is. As a matter of precedence, his father Paladin is at the same rank as the steward of Gondor (even if what little government the Shire has is, in practice, actually democratic). Later, with Bergil, he downplays his own importance and wealth, saying: “My father farms the lands round Whitwell near Tuckborough in the Shire.”

  43. Trond Engen says:

    Good point. Far min dyrkar landet kringom Kvitkjelde nære Tóksbygd i Heradet in the Nynorsk version. To me this recalls Icelandic landnám: Far hans var Kjetil Oddsson den gamle som tok land frå Kvitå til Dyranes i Austfjordane, an assertion of power and provenance.

  44. Wow. I never thought of that before, Brett. Now that you mention it, I see that Tolkien is (as he often does) using a word in both its older and its newer sense at the same time. The Thain probably farms his demesne lands directly, but he is certainly also a fermier, a feudal landlord (although the line between tenants and family may be pretty narrow or non-existent), one who collected taxes for the (now non-existent) king.

    Trune, I wish I could read a full commentary in English about this translation. Any more notes you feel inspired to give us would be enormously satisfying to me.

  45. @Lars: Even here in Sweden where everybody thinks they speak perfect English, it’s much easier to detect contexts and subtexts when meetings are in Swedish. Whether that makes a company work better or worse, that depends on other factors.

    In pretty much every IT project I work in here in Germany, and in software houses, and in internet articles, the use of AE (Approximate English) makes it increasingly difficult for me to understand what people want to say. I can think my way around the production of simple errors of grammar or vocabulary, of course, but that stage has been left far behind over the last 20 years. When I speak as precisely as possible, it’s not understood – apparently because the hearers have lost any ability they may have had to distinguish between casual talk and precise technical description.

    It’s as if people are losing, or never had, the knowledge that words used in generally accepted ways (parole) are the only means available to communicate effectively about stuff that isn’t THERE, i.e. in the absence of a cat on the mat that the speaker can point to while speaking, or in the absence of a piece of code displayed on a monitor. This covers about 99% of what is talked about in IT.

    The fact is that AG (Approximate German) too is now in high favor in IT here in Germany, among youngish native speakers at any rate. They string together any old German technical expressions in any old way, and expect to be understood.

    The problem is no longer one of linguistic niceties. It’s as if they can’t hear themselves as ithers hear them.

    There is a lot of complaining about newspapers and publishing houses firing their copyeditors. The problem I am describing could be put this way: individuals too have stopped copyediting what they say.

  46. Trond Engen says:

    John: I wish I could read a full commentary in English about this translation. Any more notes you feel inspired to give us would be enormously satisfying to me.

    I’ve been around the whole wide web wirhout finding anything more than a few lines in English, so it seems I’ll have to write it myself. When I find time. Meanwhile I can give you this article from the magazine of the Norwegian language board. It’s the translator’s own explanation of his work in Norwegian.

  47. Rodger C says:

    That sounds so brilliant to me that I wonder whether, if Tolkien had seen it, he would have modified his opinion that the names in the Shire should be left strictly in English. What he actually had to judge, unfortunately, was the Swedish version by Åke Ohlmarks. I’ve never seen it, nor am I competent in Swedish, but I think I can safely conclude from Tolkien’s description of it that Ohlmarks was incompetent.

  48. Hat: I’m rather surprised you think it’s delightful, as you are rather amply on record that you think it’s a bad idea to translate the dialects of the source language into the dialects of the target language.

    Trond: Thanks for the link. I read it with the help of Google Translate, despite its best efforts to make a farce of the article by translating all references to Bokmål as “Indonesia”, e.g. “Torstein Bugge Høverstad did good work då he nyomsette The Lord of the Rings to Indonesia in 1982.” Well, the meaning of the article is clear enough, and sometimes that magic happens where you look at a GT-mangled sentence, then at the original, and it’s perfectly obvious what the original must mean. He is wrong to say that the Trolls in the Hobbit speak Cockney, though: there is no h-dropping except in the word hell. It is really a sort of generalized non-standard English of England.

    Rodger: Tolkien did in fact reverse that opinion, and went to the length of creating a glossary for all the names (other than Elvish ones, which of course are not to be translated) and non-standard terms, explaining what he meant by them and what could be done with them in various languages about which he knew something. For example, he suggests that for “oliphaunt” the best approach, if there is no such archaic form available in the target language, is simply to replace the initial e of the standard word for ‘elephant’ with o, but that this will not work in Dutch where olifant is already standard. Unfortunately, for one reason and another, this glossary has been either unavailable to translators or not used by them, with destructive results.

  49. Hat: I’m rather surprised you think it’s delightful, as you are rather amply on record that you think it’s a bad idea to translate the dialects of the source language into the dialects of the target language.

    Well, it’s not as general as that, though that comment made it sound so (I often write more definitely than I think). I find dialect translations into English almost uniformly ludicrous, so I’m agin’ em. But if a native speaker finds translations into dialects he’s familiar with appropriate and well done, then that’s a good thing.

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