Linguistic Imperialism: English Conversation as Ideology

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Linguistic imperialism

“I never heard the expression English conversation (eikaiwa) until I came to Japan,” says Douglas Lummis in his book entitled, “Ideorogi to shite no eikaiwa,” published in 1976. He summarized briefly that “English conversation offers not simply language training but a world view.” Almost half a century has passed since then. Now, in 2023, a Japanese online English lesson company provides US news articles every day for Japanese learners of English conversation to improve their discussion skills. Their selected topics are sometimes so domestic that they feature mostly names of persons, places, and institutions and organizations in America. It is obvious that they are specifically targeted at American readers. Since every news article has a target audience, it appears not to be appropriate material for Japanese.

This sense of selection stems from an ideology of English conversation as coined by Douglas Lummis. If I summarize the ideology of English conversation described by him, I would say that that is the linguistic version of American imperialism. Today, most English conversation lessons– not writing but speaking skills– are targeted at businesspeople. So, textbooks should be naturally designed according to their requirements. I am not knowledgeable about the business world, but at least I am sure that there are many Asian countries and people with whom we must deal and negotiate in business. If learners are not given the opportunities to be exposed to various Englishes and their backgrounds, as a businessperson, they might fall short of the intellectual resources required in the global business world. A more significant effect results from the hidden messages given by English reading materials prepared for lessons. Some news articles are not only inappropriate for Japanese, but rather harmful ethically, or if I am allowed to use a stronger expression, ideologically.

Today, even NHK— the broadcasting giant media that is controlled behind-the-scenes by the Japanese government, provides Business English Radio Lessons, where one day a Pakistani businessperson, and another day a Sri Lankan journalist, are invited respectively as guests for sample interviews. Both of them play an important role in each field of Japanese society. Or a fictional corporation located in Chennai is set up as a business partner to communicate with. Their English with local accents is familiar and easier to understand for me, having studied in India, but not for everybody, because that is a matter of experience and perception.  

I remember some of my friends working at the UN. They move according to the place they are assigned almost every 3-5 years. So, they are quite capable and tolerant of a variety of English and the cultures behind the language, because English as a lingua franca is a communication tool in the first place. At this point, some Japanese-run private companies which favour American English and the US news media, to the exclusion of other choices, are completely outdated. I don’t say their services are useless, but I would say they are harmful unless a learner keeps on trying consciously and cautiously, to avoid the impacts showered every day by their hidden messages. That is the essence of today’s American imperialism.

English Study (1873). Japan. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I will never forget what my mother said to me in my childhood. I don’t remember how old I was when she told me, “It was good that America had defeated Japan at war.” I was surprised by her statement and could not understand the meaning. I was born in 1958. So, most probably it was in the 1960s when I was shocked by her words. 

According to my mother, Americans taught us what democracy was. They removed Japanese militarism and transformed our feudalistic society into a modern democratic one. She also told her memories of my four-year-old elder brother playing with a hand-made quasi-placard in his hand, shouting “Anpo Hantai (No to the Japan-U.S. Peace Treaty)”, without realising the meaning of the slogan that he was shouting. The Japanese phrase “amerika teikokushugi, which is equivalent to American imperialism in English, used to be very common among the student activists of the leftist wings when I was small. That was the atmosphere of those days in Japanese society, on the one hand. 

On the other hand, American TV comedy serials were broadcast once or twice a week in the evening and were loved by kids. Yes, we loved Americans. Once upon a time, I loved Americans, too. They were all White people with blonde hair and blue eyes. No exceptions. My memory coincides with the essay written by Douglas Lummis. What he describes in his essay is so humiliating for me that I can’t read it without feeling anger and shame—as a Japanese who witnessed those days as a small girl. 

Now I realise that my mother’s statement was a declaration of the triumph of English conversation. The short article “English Conversation as Ideology” was translated into Japanese and published in 1976 along with other essays in a book of the same title, because the author believed that it was the most crucial essay in the collection. The English original wasn’t published so far. That is, he wanted the Japanese to read the book. That’s why he published only the Japanese translation. His target readers were the Japanese.

Then, I ask myself, “Why am I writing in English?”

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