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Mistranslation, Critical Information Gap, Pseudo-bilingualism and Decorative English in Japanese Linguistic Landscape: Implications for English Education in Japan

Posted By admin On May 30, 2013 @ 1:03 pm In Abstracts for 2013, Linguistics and Language Teaching | Comments Disabled

Hirobumi Matsumoto, associate professor

Department of Comparative Cultures

Tamagawa University

Japan

Linguistic Landscape (LL), the study of language present in public spaces, is a subfield of sociolinguistics, which has been researched, since Landry and Bourhis (1997), by scholars with various backgrounds in various perspectives.  While many previous studies tend to focus on its social aspects, i.e. relationships between language and society, it is also intriguing to look at its language in its own right.  The present study investigates linguistic phenomena observed in Japanese LL with a special reference to Japanese-English bilingualism as well as the use of English.  To be more specific, it deals with mistranslation, critical information gap, pseudo-bilingualism and decorative English.  On the basis of the analysis of such data, it discusses what might account for them, and then what implications they might have for English education in Japan.  The discussion will centre on the importance of language awareness.

Mistranslation is a general term for incorrect translation.  It is an unfortunate fact that there are still mistranslations in some signs in Japan, public or private, and that some of them are so incorrect that they cannot be interpretable at all, its grammaticality aside.

Information gap refers to semantic/functional differences found between two or more languages used in signs.  Matsumoto (2010) examines this phenomenon with concrete examples, referring to Reh’s (2004) framework, and argues that there are cases where the English counterparts of original Japanese messages in signs miss vital information, which could even make the use of English completely useless in terms of their functionality as signs even if the other parts of the English translation is perfect.  Such instances of information gap might be termed critical information gap.

Pseudo-bilingualism denotes the complementary use of two languages (i.e. no translations between two languages despite their coexistence), in this particular case, Japanese and English, in signs and other places, which doesn’t work as practical bilingualism.  This is an interesting case of information gap in the light of Reh’s (2004) framework because unlike the case of Lira Town, where this sort of sign works for individual multilingualism, it wouldn’t be intended for the same type of population in Japan, as bilingual signs are generally intended for those who don’t speak or read Japanese.  Given that, this kind of bilingual sign has a relatively low (or no) information value to those who really need it, as Backhaus (2007) points out.

Decorative English is almost a ‘tradition’ in how English has been used in Japan.  You can find many instances in which the main purpose of the use of English, written or spoken (or sung), isn’t communicative (i.e. to communicate specific messages) but decorative (i.e. to make something look or sound nicer) in nature, its meaning and grammaticality aside.  In these cases, the primary function of English as a language is often forgotten or ignored, and it is the visual or auditory presence of English that matters.

These LL phenomena in Japan lead to an interesting question: why are there signs with mistranslations, critical information gaps or pseudo-bilingualism, or instances of decorative English, in Japan?  One possible, and arguably obvious, answer would be that Japanese are often not so good at English.  This might account (at least partly) for mistranslations and critical information gaps, but it is not clear how it would account for pseudo-bilingualism and decorative English.  Another possible account, which might also cover the latter two phenomena, would be that Japanese are often not fully aware, in real senses, that English is a language, i.e. a communicative tool.  It could be argued that the lack of true recognition of English as a language might contribute to the Japanese tolerance for dysfunctional uses of English.

Now the question is what could be done to improve the situation?  One key notion would be language awareness.  While the promotion of communicative language activities in classes is important, it would also be vital to incorporate language awareness activities into classrooms by which students can raise awareness of English as a functional language.


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