venerdì 10 ottobre 2008

Social Linguistic's Values: Speaking Japanese to surviving disasters - Socio Linguistica, parlare giapponese per sopravvivere alle catastrofi

On the following an interesting opinion about the social importance of speaking japanese in daily japanese life. Are you too a foreigner working or travelling in Japan? I think you could find very interesting such opinion edited by Prof. Kazuyuki Sato, professor of sociolinguistics at Hirosaki University in Aomori Prefecture - Honestly I've never considered the value of japanese language's use according to  the dimension introduced by Prof  Sato.  But for several times I felt the need to understand terms in japanese about earthquakes during my stay in Japan...
Paolo Cacciato

Kazuyuki Sato / Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun

   Japan is a country that suffers a large number of earthquakes. With registered foreign residents reaching a record 2.15 million last year, according to the Justice Ministry, it has become more than likely that foreigners will be among the victims of such disasters.

However, many foreign residents do not understand important Japanese terms related to earthquakes, such as yoshin (aftershock) or hinanjo (evacuation center). This is in part because the government has made an effort to offer foreign residents information in English and other languages, rather than simple Japanese.

When an area is hit by a strong earthquake, radio and television broadcasts are almost entirely in Japanese. Non-Japanese with poor Japanese-speaking abilities are often perplexed by earthquake-related announcements.

A prime example of this problem was the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. Some foreigners were unable to do anything but wait in their damaged residences for their friends to find them. Even those who fled to nearby parks were often confused over what to do next, as they couldn't read the information posted only in Japanese.

In the event of a natural disaster, even Japanese people suffer a dearth of information. It's nearly impossible for the government or the media to supply foreigners with information in their own languages. With a growing foreign population speaking a profusion of languages, Japan faces a problem of how to deliver emergency information.

Many linguists, including myself, have suggested the adoption of the so-called Easy Japanese system for the delivery of emergency information.

The Easy Japanese system concerns the kind of expressions to be used to provide foreign residents with crucial information when a disaster occurs. These expressions may be used for radio broadcasting, subtitles in television news, posted notices or community communication systems.

To communicate important information to foreign residents, a limited vocabulary of about 2,000 words could be used to produce expressions equivalent to Level 3 (second from lowest) on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), which is deemed sufficient for arranging meetings with friends or explaining what one wants to buy when shopping.

One example sentence is as follows: Tsunami, takai nami ni tsuite oshirase shimasu. A-shi, B-shi no umi ni, tsunami ga kimasu. Umi no chikaku wa, abunai desu. Sugu ni, umi kara toi, takai tokoro e, itte kudasai. (Now, information on tsunami, or high waves. A tsunami will hit City A and City B. It's dangerous for you to remain near the sea. Go immediately to a place that is far from and high above the sea.)

I believe such easy instructions in Japanese can provide non-Japanese with sufficient guidance to evacuate to safety.

The Easy Japanese system has other rules for both spoken and written language. For example, a sentence should be about 35 Japanese characters or less, while difficult terms should be replaced by easier ones: kesa (this morning) can be replaced by kyo asa, while kiretsu ga haittari shite iru tatemono (a building that has cracks in it) can be translated as jishin de kowareta tatemono (a building damaged by the earthquake).

To ensure that our system would work for rescue and relief workers, we have conducted an experiment demonstrating that foreign participants whose Japanese skills were equivalent to JLPT's Level 3 understood 90 percent of the content when information was delivered in Easy Japanese expressions. The ratio, however, decreased to about 30 percent when normal Japanese was used.

Until volunteers trained in offering help in foreign languages can arrive in an earthquake-hit area, all necessary information can be provided in Japanese only. Therefore, it seems unlikely that any system other than Easy Japanese can be effective in providing crucial information, particularly during the first 72 hours after a powerful earthquake occurs.

When considering how best to deliver accurate information immediately to those in need, we should not stick to the somewhat fixed idea that information should be provided to foreign residents in their own languages.

In today's Japanese society, with its increasing number of people of varying linguistic backgrounds, I believe the most effective way of providing disaster information is by using Easy Japanese expressions.

Sato is a professor of sociolinguistics at Hirosaki University in Aomori Prefecture. He leads a study group of experts on easy Japanese expressions for foreign residents.


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