Sunday, February 17, 2013

Language and Immigration

Last week, I officially sat out on my quest to tackle the JLPT-2 language test.  For a native speaker of a European language, at least, it is a beast.  Realistic estimates of the time required to pass it around 2000 hours of study, and almost certainly a significant amount of time living in Japan - and it is not even the highest level test!  The JLPT-1, required to enter universities, practice medicine or other professions, or apply for any number of jobs, requires half-again as much time and effort.  Just think about that:  these tests represent a year or a year and a half of full-time work, respectively. 

I have been living in Japan for almost three years total, without being able to speak the language at much more than an elementary school level.  Yet I have performed research at major universities and corporations, co-authored Japanese patents, written conference and journal papers, earned a fair bit of money, spent most of it, paid plenty of taxes, facilitated cultural exchange, and otherwise been a good resident.  In fact, the vast majority of westerners here in Japan are no better at Japanese than myself.  I would describe no more than 5% as fluent, and about a third as competent speakers, and the remainder as either short-term non-learners or those who have been here a while and picked up some Japanese by default but have no intention of hitting the books or working at it.  Despite the fact that most of us can barely speak Japanese and most of the rest of us can only speak slow, broken Japanese, we are clearly contributors and in many cases actively invited into the country (eg, JET program).
So it really gets my goat every time I hear someone complaining about immigrants' lack of English skills.  Almost universally, the people making this complaint can't speak another language beyond the Spanish they learned watching Sesame Street, and therefore have no idea how much work it is to become reasonably fluent in another language.  I am actually stunned by the level of English that most of my foreign colleagues living in the US possess.  Especially for those from non-European nations, learning English for them is as difficult as learning Japanese is for me.  They could only have gotten to the points they are at by countless hours of study.
These complainers are also wrong in that it is not necessary to speak English in America, just as it is not necessary to speak Japanese in Japan.  Sure, it is helpful to speak the native language, but there are always work-arounds.  You would think that the complainers, who almost always believe in "free markets", would leave it up to individual immigrants to decide how much English was worth learning in their particular case.  Strangely enough, however, these people want to make English our "official" language, require that would-be citizens (as well as the new "amnesty" recipients) learn a certain level of English, ban bi-lingual signs, etc.  This is pure nativism and should be frowned upon in civil society.  People should speak whatever language they want, learn whatever language they want, and the government should adapt to the people as we are, not vice versa.

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