Questioning the Promise of English: Language Choice of Japanese Transnational Workers in Asia

Wednesday, July 16, 2014: 6:00 PM
Room: Booth 62
Oral Presentation
Ryuko KUBOTA , University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada
English has increasingly been positioned as a global lingua franca in public and academic discourses especially in non-English-dominant countries like Japan. Together with neoliberal ideology of human capital that associates language skills with individual and national economic advancement, ideas about English in globalized world have formed a particular language ideology, influencing education policies and raising demands for English teaching and testing. While the prevalence of English is indeed observed in globalized marketplaces and transnational communication, language choice and use should be conceptualized as a local practice (Pennycook, 2010) that reflects, reinforces, or disrupts social, historical, material, and ideological conditions at a certain locality.

This paper reports a qualitative study that investigated the language choice as well as views and experiences of transcultural communication among 20 current and former Japanese transnational workers of five Japanese manufacturing companies who were assigned to work in China, Korea, or Thailand. Semi-structured interviews revealed that for workplace communication, Japanese was predominantly used in China and exclusively in Korea, whereas English was exclusively used in Thailand. Almost all interviewees developed truncated repertoire of the local language in order to fulfill daily survival needs (Blommaert, 2010), whereas a couple of workers developed a professional level of Mandarin and used it extensively for work.

These findings demonstrate historical and linguistic relations of power that intersect with practical considerations. Specifically, the language choice seems to be implicated in a colonial legacy reflected in the linguistic hierarchy (e.g., Japanese vs. Korean or Chinese) and the commodity value attached to Japanese as well as pragmatic factors related to linguistic and orthographical proximity. Moreover, the fact that the interviewees were selected by each company reveals a particular entrepreneurial habitus or lingua-cultural dispositions expected for transnational workers.  The study problematizes the neoliberal ideology of the promise of English and provides educational implications.