Lingua Franca—The future of the Japanese language

Lingua Franca—The future of the Japanese language

TEXT: Etsuko Gyoda


It may be that English is becoming the common language around the world, but the languages of specific regions should not be forgotten. These lingua francas are essential for creating societies and cultures, and serve as the medium of daily communication. In today’s world of freedom of movement and international travel, the number of languages being used is also increasing. On the other hand, many people never leave their birthplaces. Nonetheless, in today’s globalized society, even Japanese people who have not had to use foreign languages, are finding that they need to become multilingual.

The plurilingualism I’m talking about does not mean having perfect command of two or three languages. It is not necessary to have the accuracy and fluency of the majority of native speakers. Nor does it mean the ability to engage in all conversations ranging from everyday topics to specialized knowledge, or all fields of academic and professional activity. Plurilingualism simply means that you’re able to say what you want to say, even if only in a limited fashion.

Nonetheless, countries everywhere focus on studying English, a language with the image of being highly versatile. In reality, the majority of people visiting Japan include more than just English speakers, but from a variety of linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Yet, in Japan only the study of English is promoted. Let’s take a look at how language is used by visitors to Japan.

Take, for example, many Chinese speakers who have been coming to Japan over the years. They may use English in business talks, but at the working level, rather than use English, which the two sides may not feel comfortable with, they will use Chinese characters, known in Japan as Kanji, and speak in limited Japanese or Chinese during discussions. This way of communicating is often more effective in building mutual trust and understanding in daily communication. To speakers of Chinese or Korean, Japanese words that originally came from Chinese sound similar to their origins in Chinese or Korean. Further, kanji are faster and more accurate than English for conveying certain things. This is because, historically, the three nations have shared Kanji in their exchanges. In other words, Kanji play a role as a lingua franca.

Kanji used in Japan today came from China, along with Buddhism. Japan borrowed kanji to use for writing, while it also created the phonetic hiragana and katakana writing systems. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, kanji combinations were used to create new words to express Western concepts. In some cases, the words were even re-imported to China by Chinese students who had studied in Japan. In China, those words adopted their own evolutionary paths and have slightly different meanings than in Japan. However, kanji have played a key role in conveying abstract concepts embodied in various systems, academic disciplines and other domains within the two countries’ long history of exchange. Korea has Hangul, its own unique phonetic writing system, which originated in the same way as hiragana and katakana, because the difficulty of learning kanji was seen as too challenging.

A frequently raised concern is that kanji might disappear because of advances in modern ICT technology. But judging from kanji’s legacy in Japanese culture, I don’t see kanji disappearing from the country’s language.

A frequently raised concern is that kanji might disappear because of advances in modern ICT technology. But judging from kanji’s legacy in Japanese culture, I don’t see kanji disappearing from the country’s language. Indeed, thanks to new technology where simply inputting hiragana can offer a number of possible kanji characters, sophisticated expressions can be communicated without the writer having to memorize how to write the kanji. From the viewpoint of languages using phonetic alphabets, it may be difficult to understand the benefits of such an ideographic writing system. In the same vein, English, spoken by so many, seems to facilitate communication, yet it still does not make easy to convey certain essential concepts. When new ideas enter Japan, English words are often transliterated into katakana, leading to complaints that only those who understand English know the meaning. So it is often the case that katakana will be replaced by kanji, or simpler words. Language, after all, is a tool for communicating but it also plays a role in expressing thoughts.

Language not only expresses an individual’s ideas. It also symbolically expresses a sense of belonging, as illustrated by the choice of language in diplomatic settings. Is English, apparently the world’s common language, used when heads of state meet? There is of course the matter of language proficiency, but despite the disadvantages of going through interpreters, it is natural to choose the languages of the respective countries during such meetings, given the greater importance of communicating to their own people than of communicating to the world. In other words, the languages used are not only a tool of communication but are also a cultural expression of those countries. It’s important to promote one’s country within the international community, of course, but if the majority of the country’s citizens can’t understand its meaning, then language has not performed its function. At a ceremony in South Korea, to mark joint training in Japanese and Chinese that I recently attended, Korean, Chinese and Japanese were used, not English.

In a survey of languages used by plurilingual embassy staff in Japan, respondents saw English as the common language for communicating with non-Japanese individuals. Meanwhile, embassy staff who shared such languages as: French, Spanish, Russian or Arabic, used the common language to build closer relations, even if the speakers were from different countries. Looking at the shared language of Japanese speakers—politicians and older people answered that they used Japanese. This is analogous to how people from the same geographical area instantly feel closer to ease with, each other as soon as they speak in the local dialect. Many respondents also said that not just being able to speak Japanese but being able to read and write helped them to get closer to Japanese society. Words and writing systems can be an instant passport allowing access to communities without visible borders.

In the past, a country’s linguistic policy often mistakenly dictated using one language. But even then, the actual choice of language was left to the individual, and it was necessary to use the languages of many communities that people belonged to. Globalization has given us more freedom to choose the languages we use to express ourselves, creating common languages that open the door to individual communities. Japanese and kanji, while continuing to be influenced by other languages, will also continue to be used as common languages.


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