Foreign Language Requirements

The Kentucky Board of Education has proposed that all Kentucky High School students must learn to read, write, and speak a foreign language before they graduate. When I was a high school student at du Pont Manual high school, I thought I would never need to learn another foreign language. How wrong I was.

I now speak three languages, including English. In my last year of high school I went to Germany as a high school exchange student where I learned to speak German. In college, I returned for another year in Germany where I worked for Vermont-American and as an intern at the US Consulate General. After college, I came to Japan to teach English and to learn Japanese. I am now studying at a Japanese Graduate school as a Rotary World Peace Fellow. Unfortunately, I had to leave Kentucky to get this language preparation.

These opportunities came to me because there was a shortage of people with the required language abilities. These opportunities have benefited me, but they demonstrate the woeful preparation Kentuckians have in foreign languages. Kentuckians in particular are less prepared than most of the nation. No one expects anything more from Kentucky. People are shocked and surprised when I tell them I am from Kentucky – they have never met someone from Kentucky who can not only speak several languages, but who also does not have a strong accent.

I can attest that I have benefited from learning foreign languages. It not only allowed me to learn those languages, but also gain a strong background in my own language. When I traveled abroad I learned to see my own country and state from a new perspective. I came to love my home even more after I went abroad. I was able to do this because my parents and my teachers believed in me and encouraged me to do it. The leaders of Kentucky should do no less for all of our students. If we expect mediocrity we can only expect to mediocre.

I think it would be extremely wise for Kentucky to require its students to learn foreign languages. The world is flat, and this is necessary for the success of our youth in the future. To do this now would put Kentucky and its students at the forefront of the nation rather than being 47th or 48th. No one bets on a losing horse!

There is nothing more valuable than our human resources, and this is one of the best ways we can develop what we have into an amazing asset for the future. It may not be easy at times, but I think Kentucky will be far better off if the Board of Education elects to require foreign language mastery in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

(Published by the Courier-Journal, letters to the Editor, November 6, 2005)

Golf Diplomacy

The Japan Times reports today a simple economic formula: in South Korea there are only 147 golf courses and more golfers than you can swing a club at. In Japan, only a short flight away, there are more than 200 times as many inexpensive yet high quality golf courses. South Koreans find it easier to hop over to Japan for a round of golf or two and a soak in an onsen (hot spa) before heading home.

However, the reception is not nearly as hot as the onsen. First, they article noted that the caddies are not the young women they would prefer, but instead have aged with the golf industry. (Most caddies in Asia are young women.) One golfer procliamed, "it is like golfing with your older sister." They're bossy, and also don't speak Korean.

Very little is being done to cater to these willing spenders, not even providing menus in Korean at the clubhouse. However, the Koreans aren't interested in a cultural experience - they simply want a round on the greens. However, there is a great opportunity lost here. As long as Japanese businesses maintian a tone of superiority towards their soon to be richer neighbors, it is a chance of people diplomacy lost.

By the way, the photo is of a Russian sumo wrestler playing golf in Japan (

he Chinese Draw

Karen Hughes, bushes new "minister of information," is travelling the world trying to improve the face of America. She is failing horribly. Her next target in Asia will be Malaysia and Indonesia where she will make yet another attempt to get them to like America.

China, on the other hand, is doing little but is gaining popularity around the world. As the San Jose Mercury News reports, students from Chicago to Kuala Lampur are rallying to study Chinese. However, they are doing little to cash in on the worlds awareness of Panda Bears, Kung Fu, and kung pao chicken. On the other hand, there are no major Chinese companies the world can call their own. China doesn't have McDonalds, Microsoft, Toyota, or Sony.

However, at some point this will change. At some point, the new China will become visible to the world. At some point, the Chinese will add to their multi-lateral approach efforts at promoting themselves.

The article also notes though that China's only attraction remains economic opportunity. There is no draw of "freedom" or "democracy." This is what Mrs. Hughes is selling to Indonesia and Malaysia, yet it falls on deaf ears. Perhaps the US should learn from CHina, and focus on the simple. Rather than trying to sell big ideas, perhaps American should try to live by them and let the actions speak for themselves.

英語できますか ー Can you English?

I was meeting with an English student and friend recently, and we discussed the low English ability in Japan again. She made an interesting observation that I have thought of before. The question I posed to her a week ago is: why, after spending so much money, can't Japanese people speak English. She noted that the only time she speaks English is our time together each week. I take this for granted in the bilingual world I live in.

She noted that Japanese people don't speak English because they don't have opportunities. To a point, I agree. Japanese television is all in Japanese. Although Japan is Hollywood's second largest market, the movies are subtitled or sometimes dubbed and my Japanese friends tell me they ignore the speaking part in order to read the subtitles anyway. Often, the translations are incorrect, but I can't see how they even translate what Chris Rock says into Japanese. I know many students who simply do not speak English when they can, even though they are spending thousands of dollars to study English. Others go abroad to study, but don't try here at home.

I saw this in Europe where Germans, French, Spanish, and Italians (with their large populations) do not speak English as well as the Dutch, Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians who watch non-dubbed TV and movies. Is there a pattern here?

Perhaps TV is not the only source. There is certainly no shortage of English in Japan. JR (the train service) does a fine job of providing signage in roman characters, and many restaurants where I live have English menus, albeit with mistakes, typos, and outright mistranslations. Many Japanese artists incorporate English into their songs, or have English band names, but also with variability in accuracy and meaning, and usually with katakana sub-titles.

However, mistakes proliferate and no one seems to notice. My favorite is in Kyoto station where a sign will direct you to the "sabway." You can have your hair cut at several "Bar Bers." In Yokohama you can ride the "Sea Bass," but I am not sure if the mean bus or bass (the fish). My wife recently bought some wet towels that are labeled "cleaning seats" instead of sheets.

The local hand written signs by someone who really tried their best does not upset me. I commend them for the effort. Also, I understand when I see that a store is "close" rather than "closed." In Japanese this is communicated with the verbs 開ける and 閉める, not the English adjectives. However, misspellings of single words that can be found in a simple dictionary is a problem - like the barber or subway. Dictionaries are free online, and are much cheaper than the expensive sign.

At times I am extremely frustrated that after spending so much money, most Japanese cannot master a rudimentary level of English as is noted in the disparity of TOEFL scores. Some do quite well (like a couple of my students and a friend who writes for the Japan Times). However, so many get so little for their money. What needs to change?

English can no longer be the ends and not the means in Japan that it is today. Executives will no longer be able to slough off onto a translator or interpreter. The move from seniority to results driven promotions will reward the fluent. In short, the competition from China will force Japanese to become a necessity and no longer a luxury of bored but rich housewives.

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