Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

One member of our group pointed out that there was a discussion among G8 members about dropping Japan from the G8. One of the possible reasons is that Japanese foreign minister is often the only one who doesn't speak enough English to participate directly in the conversations. Several of us pointed out that it was bad policy in this day and age to appoint people who don't speak any English as Foreign Minister. One surprising comment was another member asserting that there was nothing wrong with a non-English speaking Foreign Minister. Doh. It's this sort of block headed pride/nationalism that gets us into trouble. English is currently the primary language for international diplomacy like it or not. I think we should have Foreign Ministers who speak English, French and Chinese.

It reminds me of when I was interpreting for the chairman of NHK (The Japanese public broadcast company) in a meeting with Jack Valenti. He told me to tell Jack that "the more English a Japanese speaks, the less power he has." He was pointing out the fact that traditionally people focused their energy on gaining power in Tokyo and people who lost political battles were typically sent overseas as punishment or to get them out of the way. This was over a decade ago and things have changed, but this insular thinking continues in part because as the world's second largest GDP it is still possible to pretend the rest of the world doesn't exist. sigh...


I think that any Foreign Minister has to be able to speak and understand English.

It's part of the job, to be in touch with nations around the world and English IS the international language.

Perhaps you should consider being a foreign minister Joi? ;)

Meanwhile, Mandarin is growing rapidly as a third language in the US (after English/Spanish):

I'm not so sure about this: there is a good case to be made for ministers going through interpreters.

English gives unnatural debating advantages to native speakers of the language.

The memoirs of a famous American politician expressed admiration for a certain French President who, even though he spoke enough English to get by directly, still used an interpreter. That gave the French President the chance to hear the same question twice and more time to formulate a reply. And he would listen to the interpreter's rendition of his French into English and correct her if he wasn't happy with the results. This probably made the interpreter's job miserable, but the quality of the discussion probably improved immeasurably over what it would have been if the French President had relied on his (fluent) English.

Speaking a second language takes effort, doing it in a way that conveys subtleties is very tough, and the focus should be on ideas, not language skills. This is one reason there is so much translation and interpretation going on in the EU, even though I'm sure everyone could get by in English if needed.

Here’s a novel idea: what if the U.S. appointed Secretaries of State and ambassadors who spoke other langauges fluently (it might help if the government were run by fluent English-speakers, but that’s not the topic at hand)?

Sure, I think Joi has a point, up to a point; but I detest the exceptionalist arrogance with which the U.S. government assumes that it decides the rules by which everyone else must play. If English really does function as the lingua franca of contemporary international relations, it would signify a laudable magnanimity for U.S. diplomats to conduct at least part of their negotiations and dleiberations in the languages of the lands in which they serve.

Both boo and AKMA raise excellent points. I think the key here is not only knowing as many languauges as possible, but being totally fluent in them. This means learning them from childhood on. The gap between western and asian languages is immense. It's not like knowing french and picking up spanish on a trip to Mexico (totally doable). Knowing many people who, like yourself Joi, grew up with two, three, four langauges, I can say this produces people of exceptional intellectual capacity... who usually are also exceptionally well educated (be it by educational institutions or just life). And we all know that racism is rooted in profound ignorance.

Besides, isn't diplomacy about give and take? A concession here for a large gain there, etc... "I'll negotiate in your language with you, you stop inciting your people to attack my citizens..."


I agree about the advantage that native speakers have. I have, for instance, insisted on process on the ICANN board calls to allow people who are not native to participate more easily. For instance, queuing up for questions, making sure that you take time to ask whether there are any questions, now allowing people to interrupt each other... I think that processes to support non-native speakers with a basic understanding of English is probably the most reasonable way to do it. The problem with translators and interpreters is that you lose a lot in translation and sometimes misunderstand a great deal.


There might be something difficult for you to understand because you had the luck to live in a multilingual environment. I have lived all my childhood in a monolingual environment, the first time ever I have been in the process of learning a new language was when I was 11 years old. I stop practicing spoken communications in another language when I was 18 years old. I restarted for the need of my work on a daily basis when I was 30 years old.

I do mistakes all the time. I try to improve every day, but whatever do I can write in French and not in English. When I say "write", it means I know how to manipulate the subtleties of the language, I can encompass its richness, its delicate shape and then express my ideas. I can't do that in English. My English is more than poor.

Making efforts, encouraging the communications, yes. Excluding no. You are part of very priviliged persons for languages. Not many people are in this case.

Why a Foreign Minester should not know Spanish if it is one of the three most speaking languages?

Why don't they just agree that interpreters will be provided for foreign ministers who aren't fluent in Engrish.

If they don't like non-Engrish speaking ministers there's always the option for those ministers to pick up their marbles, and tell the other ministers to go take a flyin' &@*! - in their native language of choice of course.

I think I've missed my calling. I would've made one hell of a foreign minister in any language.

karl: Yes, I agree. I guess I'm just trying to be practical. I've been to meetings and conferences that go through interpretors and so much is lost. I don't think everyone should have to speak English, but I think a Foreign Minister should. Not because it is politically correct, but from a practical perspective.

Jorge: Yes. I Spanish pretty imporant too. ;-) Sorry.

On the topic of Japanese not being able to speak English, there was this crazy article in Asahi last week about Japanese scientific researchers not being able to speak English.

Here's one gem of a quote:

Toshihide Masukawa, 65, a professor at Kyoto Sangyo University, is famous for his research into elementary particles. But he is also known for his dislike of English. "My dream was to write outstanding research papers in Japanese and to make all the researchers in the world read them. But it seems impossible," he says. "Of course, it's an advantage if you have a good command of English."

The delusion this man and others like him are under is extreme.

Grr. That's one thing I absolutely detest about at least some (or is it a lot of?) people in the CJK area, the sort who have this god given faith in the superiority of their country and culture over others, so that it is infra dig for them to speak (say) English. Not confined to diplomats or professors.

Words like "gaijin", "gweilo" etc have become sort of a standing joke for most people the word gets applied to, but those words have roots that go way, way back.

Or there's the highly shallow and overhyped pseudo westernism that is the local variant of pop culture in Japan - short skirts, trashy metal and kitschy pop which perhaps fuels this distrust / dislike of anything "non japanese" even more.

Chicken and egg?

My experience of Europe has been that German and Russian (and to a lesser extent, French) languages are as important, if not more relevant than English. Looking at other continents, Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic are obvious choices.

Personally, I really wished that I had kept at German and Russian; what I remember of either languages is laughable at best, which is a shame given the level of economic activity in Central Europe. Arabic has long been a tempting choice as well, although then again one can cheat using French or English, in most African countries.

Well, why does everybody assume, it is just the US who is the reason behind speaking english?

I am German, and the only other language I really speak is English. We can talk about numbers like "how many chinese are there on earth" but if I just thought about "what languages would I expect a Japanese foreign minister to speak" English would be the natural first choice.

Chinese (or probably Mandarin?) would be an obviouse next choice for the regional aspect but as I heard, chinese lanuage has some tonal learning issues to it.

But, then again: This is a position where you pick somebody for. Who should be able to present my country in the world. Especially in the western world.

While Spanish is spoken by a lot of people, I would not see the same financial / business power behind that as from the ones speaking English.

As for the translators: Well, of course, especially when it is crucial for the negotiations, I would have additional translators. But it is always good to be at least able to understand some of what is said.

So seeing that the minister does not even speak the language leaves the question, if he is capable of doing the job at all.

For the folks who want to blame everything on American hegemony or any other similar notion, go crack your history books. It wasnt that long ago that the language of diplomacy and international dealings in the West was French ("Lingua Franca"). Before that, Latin. So now it seems to be English and will be something else after that.

Joi, whether the foreign minister uses an interpreter or not is a side point to whether or not she or he is indeed able to communicate in the international language of the time. Failure to consider this will in the end contribute to the downfall of Japan's international influence outside of the power of the purse.

This is a simplistic approach. The Japanase civil servants in diplomatic services should definately be proficient in the "lingua franca du jour", but the top politician in the services has a role that goes way beyond a few meetings with the foreign counterparts, and it's to shape a strategic vision of diplomatic efforts to serve national government policies. His appointment is entirely political, and language proficiency it's not required to enter the equation if not marginally so. It's absolutely natural for him to define a set of strategies and goals and then leave actual negotations to the diplomatic corps under him, as it's them that carry on the real work, and it's them that have to be skilled in the lingua franca for purely technical reasons (i.e. it would be perceived as rude by the counterparts).
Politically speaking, to force a top-official from another country to speak your language is the most obvious way to show your power in quite a gross manner.

"Politically speaking, to force a top-official from another country to speak your language is the most obvious way to show your power in quite a gross manner." Only being able to talk about anything with anyone outside of my language with interpreters is limiting. Not even being able to exchange simplest greetings or small talk anywhere is limiting.

"your language" - English is not my language. I would still expect somebody on that kind of post to be able to at least! at least understand it. English, not German.

When I go to LesBlogs conference in Paris next week, I will of course expect everyone to speak English. Because it is the lanugage we all can do. Especially in France it would have been easy to say "French only". But then they would not attract this kind of visitors and not this kind of speakers.

It is all a matter of choice. To choose "I am in the role of foreign minister, but I don't do English" is a very poor one. It feels the same to me as if that person can't be taken into a better restaurant which I am used to because he has no table manners.

Re 10- Joi Ito

"I don't think everyone should have to speak English, but I think a Foreign Minister should."

The problem is the most qualified candidates for the foreign minister's post are automatically disqualified by the Engrish speaking rule. The field of available candidates to choose from narrows significantly to a small handful of people fluent in Engrish who aren't necessarilly cut out for the job.

Bad idea. Better to assign the most qualified person to the post and provide an Engrish translator.

Screw the G8 and their Engrish! :o)

A little late to point this out related to AKMA's reply, but surprisingly enough, the current US Secretary of State does speak foreign languages fluently. At least three of 'em, maybe four.

Otherwise, I completely agree. People speak English with Americans by default because nobody ever expects an American to speak another language, and they're usually right. They are usually shocked -- utterly, utterly shocked -- to hear an American speak to them in their language. But, unfortunately, most US politicians only learn Spanish, and then only enough of it to pander to Latino voters. Unlike Europe or the Pacific Rim, it's not considered a diplomatic asset.

Just as a side note, putting people through language training is very expensive and time consuming, especially with the "hard" ones. If you have a diplomat assigned to a post, and they have eight weeks of training with 6 months to a year of *additional* language training, it effectively takes that person out of operation for almost the length of their tour in the country in question. I don't think it's a question of anyone making a decision to field a diplomat who can't speak the language, it's sometimes a question of practicality; do you get the diplomat out there to do the job and have a translator with the skill already, or do you spend 1-2 years training them up first to do it themselves? Is this the same as expecting a political officer to know how to fix computers they use at their job, or giving them a skilled IT staff to do it for them so the job gets done?

US Foreign Service Specialist, Tokyo, Japan
(teaching herself Japanese)

@epc: news about Mandarin populatiry just killed me :))

Re 20- Pym

"Is this the same as expecting a political officer to know how to fix computers they use at their job, or giving them a skilled IT staff to do it for them so the job gets done?"

Never happen. That's a full time job in itself, and takes many years to learn.

Learning a new language - reading, writing, vocalizing - is hard work. Reading and writing are the hardest. Being immersed in a culture where you're surrounded by the language helps a great deal though.

The problem of the language is not a problem at all (I mean the G8 negotiations). There is so many interpreters. And the economic position of Japan is one to be reached by the rest of the G8's countries.

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I've been behind on my blogging as work's been hectic recently. So a recent post by Joi Ito about the state of English speaking in Japan (in a word, horrendous), reminded me of this crazy article in the Asahi last week. Basically the article is about J... Read More