From where I sit: Lost without translation

April 29, 2010

As I approach a new job in a Japanese university, I'm constantly receiving material from the institution in Japanese, including announcements of induction sessions conducted in Japanese. "Well, what else did you expect?" you may be thinking. However, the university knows my Japanese is not sufficient to deal with these issues. I've been employed as part of an internationalisation effort, and to teach in English, after all. Yet it is still sending me material in Japanese. Its systems can't seem to cope with the concept that it needs to arrange for the translation of what is sent to new staff members, everything from contracts to library guides.

Japanese academia is slowly (ever so slowly) moving towards internationalisation, and for better or for worse, this means doing more in English. I'm grateful to my new employer for an opportunity that just would not happen in reverse.

At my level of Japanese (JPLT 3, for anyone who knows the system), I have enough knowledge to conduct some day-to-day business. I can deal with someone in a shop or buy a train ticket (though in Japan that's mostly done using a machine that speaks better English than the station staff), provided they speak slowly and clearly. But there is just no way I'm capable of dealing with day-to-day administrative tasks in Japanese, let alone teaching or writing research papers in it. I hope that after four or five more years of study (to add to the five I already have), I may be able to cope with the administrative side, at least.

In the reverse position, there is no way I would be employed by a UK university. The rub is that international academia has a common language and it's English. Even French universities now require home students to have a basic knowledge of English as an entry qualification, and many are running postgraduate courses in it. Academics are becoming more mobile in a global job market where knowledge of the local language is certainly a benefit, but is not a necessity. A good understanding of English, though, is a prerequisite.

However, it is not just the academic staff that need to have a reasonable level of English. If a university is running courses taught in English with (at least partly) the aim of attracting foreign students, then the support staff dealing with academics and students need to speak English, its web pages and course brochures need to be written in English and its regulations need to be available in English.

Perhaps in 50 or 100 years' time, Chinese will have replaced English as the lingua franca of academia (although given the relative difficulty of becoming basically competent in English and in Chinese, I doubt it). I'm fairly certain that Japanese won't be that language. So, if you're a dean, a vice-chancellor or a university president looking to internationalise, please remember, it's not enough to recruit English-speaking scholars. The rest of the service needs the lingua franca, too. My home department has hired a bilingual UK graduate for its administrative office, and that's a good start, but the rest of the university needs to catch up if its dream of internationalisation isn't to die aborning.

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