Letters to the Editor,
The Daily Yomiuri,
Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-8055
There have been many letters recently debating back-and-forth the condition of English education in Japan: how it got to be this way; what is the best way to teach/learn English and other foreign languages; what it means as a mirror of Japanese culture; valuable anecdotes from the front of the teaching business/game/war. There are many intelligent people with experience of delivering and receiving the language instruction and who have something to say, to add, and to confirm in all of these reports of anecdotes, airing of theories and opinions, statistics and strategies.
I understand that there are varied reasons for the predominance of English in the world today as Masaomi Kondo noted on February 15th ("Grammar doesn't explain English's predominance"). History: British empire and American empire. Economics: American-style capitalism. Politics: it stems from the economics, doesn't it? The powerful attraction of global-reaching, English-speaking popular culture - movies and music, clothes and foods. And more. It is the usual parade of suspects.
But there is another characteristic of English that contributes to its global position that gets little attention. It seems to me that, more than most languages, it is easy to speak English badly and yet still communicate well. Japanese are a great example of this. I think of English as a bottom-up language that germinates best in the mobile and fecund layers of society. I mean it is very democratic in comparison to others, not by nature an aristocratic or elitist language created, handed down, protected and regulated by a group of privilege - in other words, stiff. (Although there are certainly some - in America today, for example - who would legislate protection for the language to preserve its perceived social position. And, while their motives are understandable, they remain quite moot.)
I think English succeeds the way that it has/does in no small part is due to its flexibility and its audience. Traditionally, it is a language of choice by those at the bottom of the social ladder who in an age of capitalism, empire, and now democracy and civil rights have nowhere to go but up (and abroad).
Or, maybe not.
Published Thursday, February 19, 2004 as “English gets strength from bottom-up nature.”
Some might take offense at my characterization of English as a kind of “gutter language.” But in that implication I am trying to describe English as more democratic than, say French, which I regard as an aristocratic, top-down language. But I could be wrong.