Why I Recommend Learning Multiple Languages


In the conduct of diplomatic and international business activities, proficiency in foreign languages is essential. Sadly, this is not well understood in Japan. I have even held doubts about whether the Foreign Ministry appreciates the importance of foreign language studies. This stems from the simple fact that Japanese people in general are not good at foreign languages. My fear is that with the growing use of and reliance on AI and automated translation, things may get even worse. It is more important than ever to study English, and to do it the old-fashioned way: lots of hard work (of course making full use of state-of-the-art technology). Better yet, you might try other languages, which is now much easier thanks to IT.

Of my nearly forty years in the Japanese diplomatic service, I spent twenty-one years overseas in six different countries. I did most of my work in the local language (i.e., English, Spanish and Portuguese). My greatest regret is that I was unable to add to the list Cantonese, the street language of Hong Kong, when I was stationed there (I was unable to handle the agonizingly difficult tones of the Cantonese language). Nevertheless, I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn three foreign languages, which qualifies me as a polyglot if I throw in Japanese (a polyglot usually refers to a person who speaks four or more languages).
I would like to share with you here my experiences as a polyglot diplomat.
(Please forgive me if any of it sounds like braggadocio).

My encounter with English education in Japanese schools
There is no doubt that English is by far the most important language in the world. It is the universal language in many areas of human endeavor. The knowledge of English serves as a basis for learning Indo-European and other languages. It should be noted that the opposite is often true. The best Spanish and Portuguese language specialists in the Japanese Foreign Ministry that I worked with displayed an exceptional command of the English language.

I spent six and a half years of my childhood in Washington D.C., while my father was assigned to the Japanese Embassy there. I returned to Japan when I was fourteen and was transferred to a public school in Tokyo. With a very limited knowledge of the Japanese language (maybe a hundred Chinese characters at best), I had considerable difficulty at school with all the subjects including English, although it was still my first language at that time. The quality of English education was criticized in those days as it still is today. It was taught by teachers, some of whom did not speak the language and priority was given to grammar and vocabulary. Conversation was not taught at all. Some of the things they taught sounded ludicrous to me (who in America ever used such vocabulary as “greengrocer” or “fishmonger”?). The classes were tailored to meet the needs of the students and the expectations of their parents, which was to do well in high school and university entrance exams.

However, the English grammar taught in Japanese schools proved very useful to me later in my life. It helped me organize neatly (Japanese style) the things that I had learned during my time in America. It was also of great use to me in my studies of Spanish and Portuguese after I joined the foreign service. English education in Japanese schools is not all that bad.

I had the opportunity to serve four tours in three English-speaking countries including back-to-back assignments in the United States and Great Britain. I will not go into the details of my experiences in the English-speaking world, because I am sure many people have had the same experiences. I just want to mention here that it does not matter which kind of English (British or American) you use as long as it is considered good English. Although I have great admiration for the elegant way people speak in sophisticated circles in London, I gave up trying to imitate their accent (Received Pronunciation or BBC English), when I realized that it would be like somebody from Tokyo trying to speak the Kyoto dialect.

Language training in Spain
Shortly after I joined the Japanese Foreign Ministry, I was assigned to Spain for two years of language training. In those days, Spain was one of the most backward countries in Europe, both economically and politically and the Spanish language did not enjoy the prestige as a world language that it does today. In those days Spain and many of the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America were under authoritarian rule and frequently found themselves in political and economic turmoil. Today Spain is a vibrant democracy and plays a central role in the European Union. Latin America has come a long way (with a few egregious exceptions) and several countries of the region are now members of the OECD with more queuing up to join. In the United States, Spanish has become by far the most widely spoken language after English.

According to a poll taken in Japan, Spanish is now the most popular second foreign language among university students. The reason appears to be the similarities in pronunciation between the two languages. The Spanish spoken by Japanese beginners is often more intelligible than that of people from other countries of Europe. Some people complain that Spanish grammar is exceedingly complicated. To be sure, studying it requires a bit of hard work, but once you become familiar with the rules of Spanish, it becomes easier than English grammar which is said to have more exceptions than rules.

There are distinct differences between the Spanish spoken in Spain and in Latin America. Also, there are as many variations in Latin America as there are countries. However, with a knowledge of one version, you can get by in all Spanish-speaking countries. This is not the case with many other languages, including Chinese (I was once told that Mandarin and Cantonese are as different as English and French, by a person who speaks all four languages). With a total of five hundred million speakers in Latin America and Africa, Spanish is the language with the largest number of speakers after English and Chinese.

The struggles of a sexagenarian with Portuguese
Shortly after my arrival in Brazil I visited a small city near Brasilia where I was invited to say few words at the Municipal Assembly. Since the stop at the legislature was unscheduled, I was forced to improvise my speech with a vocabulary of perhaps a dozen words of Portuguese. I ended up speaking to the audience in Spanish sprinkled with a few words of Portuguese. It was a horrendous speech although my hosts applauded me politely. I realized then that I needed to perform my duties properly in the local language to establish a genuine rapport with the people. At the age of sixty I started taking one on one Portuguese lessons twice a week from a tutor.

There are many similarities between Portuguese and Spanish, but the differences can be tricky. There are many “false friends”. For example, the Spanish word for “tip” (gratuity): “propina” means “bribe” in Portuguese. The pronunciation is also difficult for Spanish speakers because of the perplexing variety of vowels used in Portuguese in contrast to the straightforward phonetics of Spanish. It took nearly two years before I was able to do most of my work in Portuguese. It takes time to teach an old dog new tricks.
Although it involved lots of hard work, I found my efforts well worthwhile.

There are certain situations where knowledge of the local language is indispensable. I once made an unusual request to a Brazilian cabinet minister at a lunch that I hosted in his honor. Since it was a sensitive matter that could not be discussed in the presence of the other guests, I spoke to the minister when he was on his way to his car after the meal. An hour later I got a direct phone call from him with a positive response. I doubt that I could have achieved the same result if I had relied on an interpreter.

The knowledge of foreign languages in conducting diplomatic and international business activities is essential. At times it can be vital. The reason for this is that the use of the local language is needed for the establishment of a personal rapport with the people in other countries. Languages are not just words with which people communicate with each other. It is the central component of a nation’s culture. Studying the nation’s language means studying its culture. How can you understand the workings of the minds of people in other countries if you do not know their culture and history?

SHIMANOUCHI Ken is a former ambassador to Spain and Brazil.

Note: This essay originally appeared on the website of the English Speaking Union of Japan.