October 18, 2007

Japanese dogs speak English

Okay, Japanese dogs don't speak English. They speak, um, "Dog." But Japanese guide dogs are specifically trained to respond to English commands such as "left," "right," "go," "straight," and "good," as in "Good dog." Yes, at first you think somebody is yanking your chain, until you see it in action, and: "Hey! That guy's talking to his dog in [badly-pronounced] English!"

Many reasons have been offered for this phenomenon. To start with the most cynical, training guide dogs in English means that the dog owners as well must be trained to address the dogs in English. This gives the trainers pretty much total control over the whole process, rent seeking par excellence.

That is obviously not the reason offered by the guide dog trainers. Here are some of the alternatives:

1. Training guide dogs in English avoids problems created by gender and dialectal variations in Japanese.

Except if that were truly the case, then settling on, say, the standard Tokyo dialect (made ubiquitous by mass media) would be easier than teaching dog owners another language (and not all guide dog commands actually follow English grammar). Does a guide dog trained in New York flounder when shipped to Georgia?

2. English commands are shorter.

Sort of. Most words in the guide dog vocabulary do have fewer syllables in English than Japanese. Except the average Japanese is quite incapable of articulating final consonants and consonant clusters (other than /n/) without adding a vowel. So "right" turns into righto and "straight" becomes sutoraighto. (And "McDonald's" turns into Makudonarudo.)

Besides, "right" and "left" are no less phonemically complex than migi and hidari.

3. Using English commands avoids confusion with similar words that might occur in conversational Japanese.

This is my favorite explanation. It's certainly the most logical. It's the same challenge faced by voice-recognition software: discriminating between "text" and "command." For example, if I say "period," do I mean the end of the sentence or thought, or the punctuation mark, or the word "period"?

Except that guides dogs across the English-speaking world are not wandering about in a confused daze wondering which is which. And loan words like "straight" have already become part of the Japanese lexicon. Dogs are apparently pretty smart critters when it comes to divining the intentions of their masters.

So the real reason? Well, I think this is an example of what physicist Richard Feynman called "cargo cult science." Back in the mists of time, a practice is introduced that yields certain results. Soon, the specific reasons for the practice are lost, and completely unrelated reasons are concocted in their absence.

The first officially-sanctioned branch in Japan of the International Guide Dog Federation was established only in 1967. The U.S and the U.K. train more guide dogs than the rest of the world combined. Japanese love doing things by the book. The book in this case was surely translated from English and incorporated the original English commands.

Plus, in Japan English still lends anything that extra cachet. Besides, as long it works, who cares what the real reasons are?

I predict that in time the cult will weaken as guide dog trainers and owners figure out that dogs understand Japanese just as well as English. In the meantime, monolingual Americans in Japan can rest assured that if nobody else can understand them, they can always go to the dogs.

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# posted by Blogger Steve Bodio
10/21/2007 8:18 AM   
The police cars in Ulaan Bataar say "Police", in English, on their sides. So do the ones in Kazakhstan, at least in Almaty, which also has signs that say "stop".
# posted by Blogger Eugene
10/21/2007 9:15 AM   
Watch Japanese television news for a while, and you'll notice that all the crime scene teams wear jackets with POLICE printed on the back, and the name of the municipal department below that in English/romaji. I call it the "CSI effect." Because it looks so cool on CSI.