Monday 24 October 2011

A Little Knowledge

So, here we are again. Having already said that this isn’t an Engrish blog I’m going to talk about it again. Or at least talk around it. It appears that the Japanese media have finally discovered Superdry, the British clothing company whose USP is the Japanese phrases they stick on the front of their shirts. Needless to say, if you can actually read this stuff it’s absolute gibberish.

To any English speakers who have visited Japan, the fact that Japanese people would be surprised by foreign nonsense on clothes is astounding. You could go to any city in Japan and you’d need to people-watch for a maximum of two minutes before you saw your first example of English being tortured beyond comprehension. As I’ve said before, at first it’s hilarious but eventually its sheer ubiquity renders it mundane.

So, is this barefaced hypocrisy in the part of the Japanese TV producers? Surely the Engrish here is ‘worse’ than the Nihonwent is in the UK?

(‘Japanese’ in Japanese nihongo. Mangle it a bit and you get nihonwent. Good, eh?

Fine then. You come up with something better.)

Well, firstly, it’s not a competition. And stop teasing you brother like that, or it’ll all end in tears. Either way, I’m not sure how much it really matters. If you don’t understand you get to wear a cool t-shit (well, a t-shirt you think is cool, at any rate), and if you do you get a bit of a laugh. No harm, no foul, as I believe they say.

And secondly, well, you could effectively argue that it is ‘worse’. Japan has poured phenomenal amounts of money and time into English language education, over a span of decades (the JET Programme and its forerunners are fractionally older than I am). It’s completely reasonable to expect a level of basic competence from the general population, and especially if you’re committing stuff to print. I’m not talking about unfortunate double-entendres which might even escape slower native speakers (like the high school sports day banner instructing everyone to ‘Do It Hard Right Now!’), but basic, simple stuff. Like this -

  Disappointingly, “The rule of a Ticket” isn't a satirical short story on bureaucratic tyranny.

Is this unfair of me? A little, yes. It’s still perfectly clear what this refers to, and most of the rest of the site is fine, but it took me literally 5 seconds to find this. It’s one click away from the English language homepage of the first Japanese corporation I could think to check. Significantly, that click was the one the vast majority of foreign visitors to the site would make as well.

And that ties into the other significant thing about Engrish, because most of it, or at least the most extreme examples of it, aren’t really intended for native speakers – in the same way the Superdry people don’t really expect Japanese people to see their stuff, and don’t really care even if they do. There is no expectation that any Brits will have even the vaguest notion of what the funny pictures mean (my family still talk about the time they visited and were taught to ‘draw’ their names in katakana).

Most Japanese people though should understand English, or at the very least recognize the words as words and be able to sound out the letters. Just about every Japanese person knows they know a bit of English, and this creates its own problems. Any native speaker who’s had even the slightest of contacts with ELT in Japan will know what it’s like to get overruled by a local superior on a point of language, even if you’re the one notionally being employed specifically because of your superior abilities with it. We’ve all been asked/instructed/commanded to use strange, if not just flat out wrong, pronunciations or usages because, “That’s what the students have been taught.” After all, if the students have been taught that English questions have a rising intonation, then all questions must be asked like that. Wouldn’t you agree?

I’m not against using simpler language patterns to effectively communicate, far from it. I’m also completely fine with slightly archaic or awkward constructions if they illustrate a wider point. I remember discussing the pattern: “What do you want for xxxx?” It’s a fairly useful construction, you can chunk a whole lot in there, rising intonation or no; ‘christmas’; ‘breakfast’; ‘your firstborn son’. These all slot in nicely, but one example was “What do you want for a pet?”

There was a discussion. And while I thought it would have been better to skip over that example, I wasn’t particularly bothered that it was kept. For some reason my opinion as to whether is was acceptable or not – “Yes,” if you are an Edwardian parent exhorting your child to an expeditious choice; “No,” if you’re not a character in a Dodie Smith novel  –  was dismissed.

 “Come now Eustace, you simply must choose. Father shall be most displeased if you tarry any longer. What do you want for a pet?”

“This one Mother! I want this one! We shall have so many japes and adventures together! I shall love him best in the whole world and give him a name which will seem shockingly racist a few decades from now.”

It’s not that these local supervisors think they know more English than native speakers, but they do know their target audience better. I’m convinced of the importance of adapting your message to your audience; it’s one of the most fundamental communication skills. But the specific problem here is that it sets up a feedback loop. People have just enough knowledge to understand, but not enough to understand that it’s crap. This crap gets accepted as real and disseminated by people who know just enough to understand what other people understand, but not enough to understand that what those people understand is crap, and so on. Understand?

It’s a downward spiral of reducing expectations and comprehension. And inside Japan it’s all fine. It’s all very cool and interesting, and marks you out as someone with a sophisticated international mindset. Maybe.

It’s just that when Japanese people then do try to use English for the purpose they, supposedly, actually studied it – to communicate with people from outside Japan – they crash into the uncomfortable result of all that dumbing-down.

Utter incomprehension, or at best a kind of sniggering condescension.

That’s the trouble with insisting on what are essentially specifically local variations; each one is a step further away from the general global ideal. Now there’s definitely a valid and important argument to be had about what that global ideal is in regards to English, but it certainly isn’t this –

I like Begle too. Especially his work regarding topological mapping. Wow! Nice theorem!

There is so much wrong with this video it’s perfect. So I’ll wrap up here. You can have fun dissecting the clip yourself, but in closing I’ll just point out that the interviewer’s English is obviously fluent (apparently Ayaka Kimura actually grew up in Hawaii), and yet…

So, in summary – 

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