It seems to be conventional wisdom — if “wisdom” is the word — that Japanese people do not excel at mastering foreign languages. Some surveys of the results of international English-proficiency tests have them occupying the murky depths, below even the likes of North Koreans. Does the “Dear Leader,” by chance, know something that the “Beautiful Leader” doesn’t?

It used to be said of Americans that they were “unable” to speak foreign languages — except, of course, for those born into one. Despite the bizarre concept that any nationality could render a people mentally or temperamentally incapable of learning a foreign language, this was a “fact” routinely touted both in the United States and abroad.

I thought so too at one time. Two years of foreign-language study was compulsory in my U.S. high school. I took Latin (no need to speak that), but most of my friends studied French. After two years, not one of them could pronounce the language with remote accuracy, let alone utter a word of it in conversation. The results in university were not much better, save for those students who spent their junior year in Europe or Latin America. We all assumed that our green passport (U.S. passports later turned blue) was the barrier to our foreign-language acquisition.

But then, when I went to live in Europe after studying Russian and Polish to graduate level in the U.S., I encountered the very same misconception there. Once, I was invited to the home of some French people I’d met at an art gallery in Paris. The artist whose work had been on display was from the Soviet Union, and I had been speaking Russian at the party afterward.

“So, when did your parents leave Russia?” my Parisian host asked me over dinner.

“They didn’t. They were born in New York.”

“But we heard you speaking Russian. So, your parents must be Russian.”

“No, uh, actually, they weren’t. They speak only English.”

“But that can’t be,” he said, squinting at me. “Americans don’t speak foreign languages. Your parents must be Russian.”

‘Russian-shmussian’ with a shrug

I later repeated this story to my mother and father.

“Russian-shmussian,” Dad said, shrugging his right shoulder. “You shoulda studied something more useful at college, like accounting. What good is a foreign language to an American anyway?”

Putting aside the deep philosophical question touched on by my father, there was no doubt that people in and outside the U.S. assumed Americans to be born monolinguists.

Of course, this is not the case, although the country’s commitment to foreign-language study has certainly diminished even since my time in school. Fewer and fewer Americans are now looking outward for anything more than a place to park a Humvee.

What of the Japanese people? Japanese is a language unrelated linguistically to any other. At least English-speakers have an advantage in that their language is part of the huge Indo-European group, and is more closely related to Germanic and Romance languages. Even if the words are different, the logic behind the grammar of thought is invariably similar.

Japanese people must almost entirely realign their modes and processes of thought when switching to a foreign language. In this sense, comparisons of Japanese speaking English with Germans, Russians or Romanians doing so are unfair. Generally, speakers from those countries merely have to translate what they would say in their own language in order to be understood. Japanese are required to reboot their thought process and restart in “English mode.” Just speaking Japanese in English produces accented mishmash.

Some have asserted that even in comparison with Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and Indonesian students in Japan, the English proficiency of Japanese students appears lacking. But although those foreigners’ languages are also unrelated to the Indo-European group, is it fair to compare the ability of such high-level individuals with that of average Japanese students?

I do not believe that Japanese people are inherently worse speakers of English than those from other Asian countries whose native tongues have no Indo-European connection. But even so, there is another major foreign-language issue facing young Japanese people today. In many senses, its impact will eventually be greater than the issue of English-language proficiency.

It is increasingly assumed in Japan that the only foreign language worth studying is English. The decline in the study of so-called dai-ni (second) foreign languages is acute, with the exception of Chinese. As one colleague recently put it to me, “Everyone speaks English and writes in English on the Internet, so what’s the use of going to the trouble of learning some other language?”

Ill-founded logic

Virtually all Japanese students seem to have accepted this ill-founded logic. When scholarships for study abroad are offered at universities, most are opting for a second- or third-rate American university over a first-rate European one. These students assume that their careers will be furthered more rapidly by haku o tsukeru from the U.S. “Haku o tsukeru” literally means “putting on the gilt,” but figuratively it indicates a value-added boost to one’s reputation. And just think, a year at the Sam Houston Institute of Technology is all it takes!

Well, this world of foreign-language advantage is in flux. More and more, those Japanese who can speak “minor” — meaning less well-studied — languages are in demand. Japanese industry, commerce and government need Arabic speakers, Vietnamese speakers, Hindi speakers and those who know an African language. Japanese who are functional in these will be the ones in demand in the coming decades.

The Internet is multilingual, and a huge amount of information there is not posted in English. Those Japanese who are privy to knowledge originating in China, Russia, India and Brazil, for example, are going to have an edge.

As global blogging expert Ethan Zuckerman pointed out in New Scientist (Jan. 20, 2007), “Pandemics, global warming and poverty are all inherently cross-border. The interesting problems are international ones. . . . Now we can think globally and act globally.”

There are two issues here.

First, there is no such thing as a nationality barrier to the learning of foreign languages. Japanese can master them if personal and institutional efforts are behind the process. Second, the critical importance of studying languages other than English must be recognized — and the trend toward the decline in doing so reversed.

The true internationalization of Japan cannot occur unless its universities and students invest effort in the study of other, non-English, second languages. This is not a question of “can or cannot.” It is a question of “must do or cease to prosper.”

Moreover, it is about the effective, global linking of Japan and Japanese people with those who are set to lead the world.

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