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Having a good command of English is crucial for Shiro Nakamura, a senior vice president in charge of design at Nissan Motor Co., to work with President Carlos Ghosn, other foreign executives and subordinates.

But Nakamura, who joined the carmaker in 1999 when it formed a capital alliance with French automaker Renault S.A., has taken a light-hearted approach to the language.

In fact, the 53-year-old designer admits he does not understand everything people say in English.

“I think I miss 10 to 20 percent of discussions at meetings in English. If you try to understand 100 percent, you would get very tired,” Nakamura said. “But I think it’s OK if you understand the point of what people said.”

Nakamura, who majored in industrial design at Musashino Art University in Tokyo, started his career in car design at Isuzu Motors Ltd. in 1974. As Japanese carmakers began gaining a firm global footing with their compact models in the 1970s, he had numerous chances to work abroad.

In 1985, he was dispatched to a design studio of General Motors Corp., which formed a capital tieup with Isuzu in 1971. He was chief designer at Isuzu’s design studio in Belgium in the late 1980s and then became vice president of the firm’s U.S. unit in the late 1990s.

Through his stints overseas, Nakamura brushed up on his communications skills, acquiring words to express car designs while collaborating with foreign designers.

“Designers can communicate by drawing. But when you as a manager explain subtle shapes (to people in other sections), you need to increase vocabulary used by foreign designers, such as ‘puffy,’ ‘sagging’ and ‘hollow.’ “

What he found troublesome were the different accents and pronunciations spoken by people from other countries, including Britain, China, Germany and Italy.

When Nakamura made his first business trip to London in the late 1980s, he couldn’t understand when his hotel receptionist called and asked him if he wanted to read a newspaper.

“His pronunciation of ‘paper’ sounded like ‘piper,’ ” Nakamura recalled.

But guessing what words people were saying soon became fun, he added.

Nakamura is well aware that his Japanese accent may cause similar reactions from foreigners. Many Japanese pronounce “l” when they are trying to pronounce “r” and “b” when trying to say “v.”

“I speak English without paying much attention to the pronunciation of those words,” he said. “It’s better to have a clear pronunciation, but people will understand your meaning from the context.”

Despite these small problems, Nakamura’s communications skills are good enough to supervise Nissan’s design units worldwide and to brief Ghosn on strategy.

Nakamura said the most important thing is what you speak about. Ghosn, born in Brazil and raised in Lebanon and France, is a good example of a nonnative English speaker, he said.

“He speaks clear English in short sentences, often using words like ‘pragmatic,’ ‘ specific’ and ‘concrete,’ ” Nakamura said. “I have been gradually affected by his English communication style as well as by his basic ideas reflected in his words.”

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