September 13, 2010

English to the rescue!

One consequence of Japan's rapidly aging population is difficulty staffing nursing homes. A first step was opening its nursing examination to foreign applicants (mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines). The formidable language hurdle, however, resulted in a pass rate of less than one percent.

A popularly-proposed workaround is a greater emphasis on automation. But this is a more satisfactory solution on paper than in reality. As my computer programmer brother points out, a human being with a middling grasp of Japanese can learn to speak the language better than any machine.

Japan's Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare has thus arrived at the most logical solution:

The ministry is considering including English translations for technical terms, including disease names, in the [nursing] exam, while clarifying subjects and predicates in Japanese sentences to make Japanese more easily understood by applicants.

Technical terms are pretty straightforward, there usually being a 1:1 relationship between the word and its definition (there are exceptions). The most exasperating aspect of Japanese for me are the "Heisenberg" subjects that disappear when you look at them, only to pop up paragraphs later.

Missing antecedents and dangling modifiers are grammatical and common in Japanese. The subject-less passive voice dominates the language (even in genre action novels). If you can't sort out all the unmentioned parts of speech based your knowledge of the shared cultural context, that's your problem.

English, on the other hand, evolved among speakers who often had nothing culturally in common with each other, so eschews vagueness and mocks the passive ("Mistakes were made").

On a related note, "Rakuten, which operates the largest Internet mall in Japan, intends to conduct all executive meetings in English and eventually have all internal documents written in the language."

I'm not sure how practical a goal that is, though it does sound like a really good way to limit the life-sucking time wasted in business meetings. Either way, speaking English is good for your health!

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