Chapter 18: “But they insist on speaking English with me!”

“I get really annoyed when the assumption is made that I can’t speak Mandarin… I find it extremely tedious to try and drudge through a conversation in stilted English when I can communicate quite well in Mandarin…I will also gladly speak English with those whose English is better than my Chinese. But otherwise … I’m living in China, ya know?”

-Internet posting by a Westerner living in China (www.chinese-forums.com)

Strange Foreigners and Foreign Devils

There is a Chinese proverb which goes, “Tian bu pa, di bu pa, jiu pa yangguizi shuo Zhongguohua.”  (“Don’t fear heaven, don’t fear earth. Fear foreign devils who speak Chinese.”) Similar sentiments have been expressed in Japan. During the postwar years, the term “hen na gaijin” was the label for a “strange foreigner” who spoke fluent Japanese, and understood the ins and outs of Japanese culture.

A group can be effectively isolated by a lack of language skills. Some governments have gone so far as to make the linguistic isolation of foreigners the law of the land. In nineteenth century China and Japan, Europeans were forbidden by law from learning the local languages. The feudal rulers in East Asia during this era saw European culture as a dangerous cultural and political influence. If Europeans could not communicate freely, then their power to corrupt would be minimal.

I am not aware of any twenty-first century laws that forbid English-speakers from learning a particular language. But not everyone is eager to see American businesspersons become accomplished linguists.  In fact, some individuals would regard a widespread increase in American foreign-language fluency as a distinctly unwelcome development. 

The vast majority of people you meet will appreciate your efforts to communicate in their language (especially after you become good at it); but there are exceptions. You will occasionally be puzzled by native speakers who seem to regard your interest in their language as irrelevant, annoying, or even threatening.

There are a handful of reasons why these attitudes exist. Some are based in cultural inferiority complexes, ethnic biases, and economic self-interest. Others are more innocent. In any case, you may one day be disturbed when a native speaker of your target language insists on speaking English with you despite your insistent efforts to converse in Japanese/French/etc. It is therefore beneficial for you to know where these people are coming from, and what motivates them.

Work-related/Economic Self-Interest

Remember “the tiny superstar subset” described in the previous chapter about foreign languages and the business world? Let’s suppose now that you are a German-speaking member of this elite group. You went through the trouble and expense of attending law school in the United States, and you are now working as an attorney for a prestigious law firm in Chicago. You were hired largely because the firm wants to take advantage of your German language skills to expand its business in Europe. Your abilities as a bilingual speaker of German and English have enabled you to cultivate a niche within the organization. You can do what no one else in the firm can do: communicate with German clients in their own language.

Now suddenly one of your American-born colleagues (who is also a competitor for promotions, high-profile assignments, etc.) begins brushing up on the German she studied in high school and college. At first you might not regard this as a threat. Your experience in the United States tells you that while many Americans dabble in foreign languages, few actually master any language but English. When she greets you one morning with a Wie geht’s?—you chuckle appreciatively and tell her that you’re fine, thanks—responding in English.

Then one day you overhear her speaking German on the telephone. Her German is still not quite as good as your English, but she is holding her own in the language which (until now) was your exclusive domain within the firm. Is this a new trend? Are any of your other American colleagues learning German?

You notice that one of the firm’s partners who happened to be in the area is also listening. “Hey,” he says aloud. “I didn’t know this firm had two attorneys who speak German.” He smiles at you and gestures at your American colleague who is speaking German. You smile and nod your head, but your heart isn’t in the gesture. Your competitive advantage has just been seriously undermined.

As mentioned elsewhere in this book, the “tiny superstar subset” of foreign-born, bilingual professionals has had to cope with very little competition from native English-speakers until now. Many have made significant investments of time and money in staking out their niche as the intermediaries between the English-speaking and the non-English-speaking world. Simple human nature suggests that this group is going to be less than thrilled to see their American colleagues (who were formerly reliant on them) begin mastering foreign languages. Most people don’t go out of their way to encourage potential competitors.

A disclaimer is in order here: many educated foreigners will go out of their way to help an English-speaker who is learning their language. There is no mass conspiracy among the foreign-born, educated elite. The above scenario is most common in organizational settings in which skills in a particular language are linked to career advancement. These are the same competitive pressures that create dog-eat-dog mindsets among professionals of all stripes.

Cultural Biases

“I’m now in Vietnam and I can say I’m still learning Vietnamese too, many Vietnamese are willing to talk to me in their language, but many, especially those in the tourism industry aren’t. I don’t mind, and never get annoyed if they could pass their meaning to me effectively, I just insist to talk to them in Vietnamese, and some other friends (foreigners) found it funny to see me talking in Vietnamese, while the Vietnamese guy was talking in English.”

– Internet posting by a Westerner living in Vietnam (www.chinese-forums.com)

In my experience, native speakers of European languages (Spanish-, French- etc.) are almost always pleased when an American demonstrates an ability to speak their language. If you greet a Spanish-speaker with a few words of her language, she will likely assume that you are fluent and begin rattling off in Spanish to you as if you were her next door neighbor in Mexico. (Spanish speakers are especially tolerant of the foreigner who puts forth a valiant if imperfect effort.)

Students of Asian languages seem to encounter the most frustration when trying to demonstrate their skills. Some even suspect a conspiracy. As one American writing online complained:

“I think from a Japanese perspective they don’t want non-Japanese to really know and understand their language….its something important about having your knowledge/language a secret while knowing others…”

-Japan-Guide.com forum

There is a long tradition of mutual language learning among European societies; but the Westerner who speaks Chinese, Japanese, or Korean is still a relative novelty. Asian languages have not been internationalized to the extent that other languages have been. French, for example, is the language of Africans, Europeans, and Asians. English, Spanish, and Portuguese are also spoken by ethnically diverse peoples who live in many countries. Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese, by contrast, are largely limited to the original ethnic speakers of these languages. Therefore, the Westerner who speaks Korean is statistically “unusual,” while the Westerner who speaks both English and French is not.

Despite the recent prominence of English, European languages have a long history of parity. The balance of linguistic power has shifted numerous times in Europe. France, Germany, and Spain still regard their languages as major forces in the world; and the European Union is formally committed to preserving linguistic equality. Both France and Germany have official agencies dedicated to the international dissemination of their languages.

Until very recently, however, linguistic interactions between Asians and Westerners occurred in the context of unequal relationships. Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, India, the Philippines, and parts of China were all colonies of European countries at some point during the nineteenth and/or twentieth centuries. In the context of colonial rule, language transfer occurred in a single direction: the Vietnamese learned French, the Indians learned English, etc. Although resentment lingers over colonialism, some Asians still regard this one-way linguistic transfer as the natural state of affairs. But attitudes in Asia are changing.

Japan Looks West

Japan is a country that has long straddled the divide between East and West; and it provides an illustrative example of the cultural and linguistic ambivalence that exists in much of Asia. Japanese attitudes about Western culture have ranged from fanatical loathing to an equally fanatical embrace. These shifts have followed larger social and political trends, and they resonate in contemporary Japanese attitudes about English, and the global role of their own language.

The “Southern Barbarians”

During the 1500s, Christian missionaries from Europe arrived in Japan, where they built schools, churches, and monasteries to spread the Christian religion. Simultaneously, Portuguese, Dutch, and British traders landed on the Japanese islands and established commercial relationships with Japanese merchants.

Although the overall European presence was relatively small, the Western influence in Japan was growing. The Japanese referred to the visitors as南蛮 (nanban), or “Southern barbarians,” since the first European ships arrived from the south. Early Christian literature in Japan was called  南蛮文学(nanban-bungaku), or “barbarian literature.” There was deep ambivalence about these hairy barbarians in Japanese society. Some people wanted to imitate them; others wanted to expel them.

The faction that wanted to expel the barbarians took control in the early seventeenth century. Japan was unified under the powerful Tokugawa Shogunate, or military government, in 1603. The new administration was especially concerned about the ill effects of Christianization. There were widespread persecutions of Christian converts; and by 1650 Christianity was all but eradicated from Japan. To vaccinate the country from further Western influences, a series of laws was passed that severely restricted the movements of Europeans. The European presence was limited to a small commercial establishment on an island near the port city of Nagasaki. This arrangement was deemed acceptable because the barbarians were technically not living on Japanese soil. 

Japan Reopens to the West

In 1853, Admiral Matthew C. Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay with a flotilla of U.S. warships and informed the Japanese government that the period of isolation was now over. The Japanese had been isolated for two hundred years, and they had no contingency plans for dealing with an invasion of technologically superior foreign forces. Under duress the Japanese government signed the Treaty of Kanagawa, which gave the Americans the right to trade and establish a consulate.

Paintings of the early Tokugawa rulers invariably depict the shoguns in traditional Japanese garb. The last Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, posed for cameras in a nineteenth century-style European military uniform, complete with knee boots and epaulets. Japan was on the verge of another period of epochal change. During the last years of Tokugawa rule, contacts with Westerners increased, and the idea of permanent isolation was gradually abandoned.

Tokugawa rule ended in 1867. By 1868, Japan was under the rule of the Meiji Emperor, and an era of almost frantic Westernization began. The Japanese now realized that national survival depended on competing with the Western powers on their own terms, while still preserving the unique aspects of Japanese culture. The slogan of the day was 和魂洋才(wakon-yoosai), or “Japanese learning, Western spirit.”

Some erudite Japanese began a debate about the true essence of the “Japanese spirit.” In previous centuries, the Japanese had borrowed heavily from their Asian neighbors. The kanji characters used in the Japanese written language, for example, were originally copied from the Chinese language and modified to fit the Japanese phonetic system. China had always been the foreign culture that the Japanese were most likely to imitate.

In the mid-nineteenth century, however, China was in decline. Great Britain had defeated the country in two wars fought over the opium trade. The British and other European powers were now carving China up into colonial possessions. China (and by extension, the rest of Asia) was no longer worthy of emulation. The Western countries were the new powers in the world. The Japanese expression  脱亜入欧 (datsu-a-nyuu-oo) means “leave Asia and join Europe.” This phrase became synonymous with the country’s drive to modernize and catch up with the West.

Some Japanese intellectuals argued that Japan should adopt a Western language to make the transformation to modernity complete. Proposals were put forth to replace the Japanese language with French, German, Dutch, or English. None of these plans ever gained much momentum; but the psychological link between Western languages and modernization would be a recurrent theme in Japan’s collective psyche.

Japan Becomes a Military Power

When feudal Japanese samurai warriors first encountered European firearms in the 1500s, they regarded the weapons as cowardly. The idea of killing an enemy from afar with a technologically advanced weapon violated the warrior’s code of 武士道(bushidoo), which emphasized ritualized, man-to-man combat.

By the late 1800s, however, Japan was focused on building a strong      industrial economy that could supply the warships, cannons, and rifles needed to equip a modern military. The notion of 富国強兵 (fukoku-kyoohei)—“rich country, strong army”—emphasized the link between industrial and military might. In 1905, half a century after Admiral Perry forced Japan to open its doors, Japan put the West on notice by defeating Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. The subsequent Treaty of Portsmouth gave Japan domination over Korea, and possession of the southern half of the Northern Pacific island of Sakhalin. In World War I, Japan fought on the side of the Allies, and was the only Asian nation present at the Versailles Peace Conference.

The drive to create a new Japan modeled on the West did not stop with factories and warships. Japanese young people of the early twentieth century were also fascinated by the idea of Westernization; and America’s budding youth culture reached Japanese shores in the era between the two World Wars. During the Jazz Age of the 1920s, young women in Japan wore bobbed hairstyles, and bands played trendy American music in Tokyo dance halls. English slang words from American movies began to pepper the speech of the more cosmopolitan Japanese. The term モー・ガー (moo-gaa), or “modern girl” described a Japanese woman who wore makeup and espoused non-traditional views, in imitation of the American “flappers.”

The Japanese were once again actively importing foreign culture, as they had when the Southern Barbarians landed on the islands in the 1500s. And once again, there would be a backlash from Japan’s more reactionary forces.

The Japanese Language During and After World War II

The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (大東亜共栄圏 Dai-Too-A-Kyooei-ken) was the name the Japanese gave to their empire in the Pacific.

Beginning in 1894, with the Japan-Qing War (日清戦争 Nisshin Sensoo),  Japan forged an empire that stretched throughout much of Asia.

The official language of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was Japanese. Japanese became the language of administration, and it was mandatory in most schools. The legacy of this policy can be seen today in the many Korean, Taiwanese, and Filipino senior citizens who speak Japanese. Gone was the talk of replacing the Japanese language with a Western tongue. I once read an account of a Japanese soldier who used the pages of an English dictionary to make cigarette papers, based on his confidence in Japan’s impending military and cultural triumph.

This sense of hubris was not to last. Within a few short years, Japanese attitudes about language would swing yet again in the opposite direction.

The Occupation Years and Beyond

Following her defeat in World War II, Japan was forced to accept a period of formal occupation by a Western army. Thousands of American troops were stationed in the country, and an American military government wielded more or less absolute power over all social, political, and economic institutions.

General Douglas MacArthur’s SCAP bureaucracy (SCAP was an acronym for Supreme Command for the Allied Powers) remade Japanese society from the ground up. SCAP officials redistributed land, rewrote school textbooks, and censored newspapers. No significant aspect of Japanese life was left untouched by the post-World War II Allied Occupation that lasted from 1945 to 1952.

Japan’s postwar period of forced Americanization was viewed ambivalently by the Japanese themselves. On one hand, most Japanese acknowledged that the country’s military leaders had led them to ruin. Many Japanese eagerly embraced the new relationship with America; and General MacArthur himself became a demigod of sorts in Japan. When the general briefly considered a run for the White House in 1948, Japanese storekeepers adorned their windows with signs expressing support for his Presidential bid. Throughout the Occupation, MacArthur’s office received a daily flood of cards, letters, and gifts from average Japanese citizens.

The Occupation had an impact on Japanese attitudes about language. In the 1930s and 1940s, Japan had forced the Asian peoples that it conquered to learn Japanese. English was disdained as the language of the Anglo-American enemy. Now, however, the Japanese were eager to learn English. An English language phrasebook published immediately after the war sold 3.5 million copies. The book, 日米会話手帳 (Nichi-Bei Kaiwa Techoo), or Japanese-American Conversation Manual, held the record as the bestselling book in Japanese history until 1981.

Nonetheless, mixed feelings about the Americans persisted. The Occupation was a source of humiliation, and the immediate postwar years were accompanied by extreme economic privations. Desperation led to widespread crime and corruption. The country seemed overrun by black marketeers, prostitutes, criminal gangs—and Americans. Most American Occupation forces behaved honorably; but those who did commit rapes, assaults, and murders were tried by the U.S. military government—not Japanese courts.

The Westernization of the Meiji Era had been championed by the Japanese themselves. The Occupation was a forced exercise in Westernization at the hands of the American war victors. The situation led to a national identity crisis—which persists to this day.

MacArthur himself ultimately disappointed the Japanese when he returned from Japan in 1951. Speaking before a joint session of the U.S. Congress, MacArthur said that the Germans were more guilty for their wartime aggressions because they were “quite as mature as we [the Americans] were.” He then asserted that the Japanese “by the standards of modern civilization…would be like a boy of twelve.”

MacArthur’s disparaging comparison was of course reported in Japan, where it aroused disappointment and a reappraisal of the new relationship with America.  Writing in Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1999), author John W. Dower describes how the Japanese received MacArthur’s words as “a slap in the face..[that] awakened people to how they had snuggled up to the conqueror. Suddenly, many felt unaccountably ashamed.”

The legacy of the Occupation years is a Japan that feels a lingering inferiority complex toward America. The established Japanese intelligentsia delights in using English loanwords, and lecturing the Japanese people about the inferiority of their own culture. In popular culture, there is a near obsession with “foreigners.” In a country where nearly everyone is of Asian descent, Caucasian fashion models occupy a disproportionately high percentage of magazine ads and television commercials.

In a recent edition of the online version of Japan Today, a journalist went out into the streets and asked random young people, “What is the best way to make foreign friends?” American youths would likely be puzzled at the premise of the question itself, but the Japanese responses were very practical, indicating that many of the young people had actually given the issue considerable thought: “One of my friends has foreign friends, but I do not. I don’t know the best way to go about it…”said one young man.  One respondent was a particularly gregarious young woman who claimed to “have many foreign friends” She revealed that, “when I was on the train, I saw a foreign lady who was reading an English town magazine, which included event info from my college. So I invited her to the event.”

At the same time, the anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Tokyo firebombing (a lesser known conventional air attack that killed 100,000 civilians during World War II) bring newspaper editorials about the dark legacy of American militarism. And ads that display foreign models often run alongside articles that decry the violence, corruption, and superficial values of the United States. Books written for Japanese businesspersons routinely describe American employees as egotistical, unwilling to make sacrifices for the group, and “not as disciplined as Japanese workers.”

In 1990, when Japanese economic growth was the strongest in the world, Japan Diet member Shintaro Ishihara’s controversial book, The Japan that Can Say No made news on both sides of the Pacific. Shintaro’s book was filled with a series of bold claims that called out for media attention. At a time when a decorated World War II veteran occupied the White House, Shintaro drudged up an old grievance from 1945: he alleged that racism had compelled the United States to drop atomic bombs on Japan rather than on Germany. The author further stated that Japan could swing the balance of power in the waning Cold War by supplying the Soviet Union with advanced microchip technology.

In 1991, two American authors reacted to the new Japanese spirit of self-assertion. The Coming War with Japan (Saint Martins Press) proposed a doomsday scenario that bore rough similarities to the events of the late 1930s: America and Japan would become rivals for raw materials and markets in Asia, leading to an inevitable collision course. Although the predictions contained in the book turned out to be dead wrong, authors George Friedman and Meredith Lebard presented a studiously crafted scenario that seemed [remotely] possible at the time.

Speculations of open conflict between the United States and Japan were quashed by a Japanese economic slowdown during the mid-1990s, and a series of global concerns that gave new relevance to the Japan-America alliance: North Korean nukes, an increasingly aggressive China, and Middle Eastern terrorism. Nonetheless, the attention showered for a brief period on the books written by Shintaro, Friedman, and Lebard casts light on the ambivalence and tensions that simmer just beneath the surface of one of the strongest alliances in the world. The generation that actually fought World War II is passing into history, but many Japanese alive today can still remember the Occupation years. Many more have heard second-hand accounts from their parents and grandparents. The uneasy sentiments of those years continue to affect Japanese attitudes.

Add to this mix the fact that the Japanese historically take pride in the “uniqueness” of their own culture. Japanese linguistics professors and sociologists frequently write about how “difficult” and “unique” the Japanese language is: No foreigner could possibly learn it. Some pseudo-scientific but popular books have even argued that there are biological links between Japanese ethnicity and Japanese language skills.

The result is the hen na gaijin (“strange foreigner”) complex mentioned at the start of this chapter. When an American does demonstrate real ability in Japanese, some native speakers of the language interpret this as a challenge of sorts. First, the American has proved that the Japanese language is just another language that anyone with the right tools and motivations can master. Secondly, the American has reduced her reliance on the more cultured Japanese who have mastered English.

Needless to say, the “strange foreigner” complex relies on a blatant double standard. There is no equivalent of the appellation that can be turned around on the Japanese. Japanese who study in the United States and master English are referred to as kokusai-ka (“internationalists”) and not “strange Japanese”. 

Slashing Tongues in South Korea

South Korea was never conquered by American forces, but the small Asian nation has been forced to rely on American military might because of the nearby North Korean threat. Troop levels have been reduced in recent years, but America continues to maintain a controversial military presence in the country. Protesting this presence has been a right of passage for South Korean college students for several generations. Every year, South Korean riot police clash with angry students who demand the ouster of the American military.

At the same time, South Korea is home to almost slavish attempts to “Americanize.” In 2003, Western news media reported that some South Korean parents were subjecting their children to a bizarre operation in the hopes of giving them the ability to speak English without a Korean accent. The surgery, called a frenotomy, involves the removal of a small portion of the frenulum (the tissue which links the tongue to the base of the mouth). This is supposed to resolve difficulties when pronouncing a foreign language.

Just as some Japanese believe that only an ethnic Japanese can (or should) learn the Japanese language, some South Koreans seem determined to link English language fluency to biological factors. The parents who pay for the frenotomies neglect to consider that Korean children who are adopted by parents in the United States speak English as naturally as native-born Americans of any other ethnicity.

Secondly (and perhaps more importantly) why should the presence of a Korean accent provoke such a severe inferiority complex? After all, the American who masters Korean will surely speak the language with at least a trace of a foreign accent. And Korean adoptees raised in America have as much trouble with the Korean language as Americans of other ethnicities.

*       *       *

The attitudes described above represent extreme viewpoints, and should not be taken as indictments of entire Asian societies. While some of these examples may strike you as eccentric or even racist, remember that cultural biases and prejudices also exist in Western societies. In Asia—as in the West—the extremes represent only one end of the continuum. The average Japanese does not think that the foreigner who speaks his language is an oddball or a threat. And the vast majority of Korean parents do not subject their children to unnecessary frenotomies. 

Asia is now establishing an identity of its own (versus an identity defined in opposition to or in imitation of the West). As this process continues, the more extreme Asian viewpoints regarding language will pass into history. In the meantime, smile patiently when a Japanese refers to you as a “strange foreigner” because you speak passable Japanese.

Are your abilities in the language up to par?

This chapter opens with a quote from an American who was annoyed when Chinese speakers ignored his proficient Mandarin—and insisted on conversing with him in broken English. It is possible for us to come across as equally boorish when we are too insistent on using our broken Spanish or Thai. This is especially true when the other party really has mastered English.

Writing in How to Learn Any Language (Citadel Press, 1991), author and syndicated radio host Barry Farber noted that while a European would be extremely reticent to speak a language that he didn’t know well, Americans can be very extroverted with even the most basic language skills. As Farber puts it, “Give an American a word in another language and he’s in action…Give him five phrases and he’s dangerous.

Our collective tendency to give our language skills the benefit of the doubt is a double-edged sword. When you use your language skills, you reinforce what you already know and expand your knowledge. Therefore, the “extroversion” of American language students is fundamentally an advantage. Nonetheless, this gregariousness should be tempered with an appropriate dose of humility during the early stages of learning. In other words, don’t force a busy stranger to stumble through a difficult conversation with you in broken Italian if she speaks fluent English.

Sometimes the person speaking English to you is simply trying to be helpful

Many (unfortunately, most) English-speakers who travel abroad have no interest in learning other languages. These monolingual travelers are delighted to encounter foreigners who can speak English. In the overseas tourism industry, the English-speaker who is unable to function unless someone assists him in English has become a cliché. Many English-speakers sigh with relief when the Mexican concierge or the Turkish shop attendant speaks to them in English. If these same foreigners take for granted that you don’t know a word of the local language, they are making a reasonable assumption—based on their past experience with Americans, Britons, and Canadians.

If your hotel concierge or your tour guide speaks English with you, don’t make a point of demonstrating that you could function just as well in the local language. This person is just trying to help you. Your interaction with him is likely to be short and superficial, so go ahead and continue the conversation in English as long as his skills are passable. You will have plenty of time to use your French or Chinese among the general population.

Coping with mixed messages

English-speakers receive a variety of mixed messages from speakers of other languages. This chapter explored interactions with foreigners who—for a variety of reasons—would prefer to speak with us in English. Don’t forget that this group is a minority; the vast majority of non-English-speakers resent the assumption that everyone, everywhere should speak English.

One of my former work colleagues recounted an incident that occurred in French-speaking Quebec: A man approached him out of the blue and started speaking in rapid French. My colleague, who does not speak French, communicated this deficiency in English. The stranger then replied, “Then what the [expletive] are you doing here?”

I have had no experiences that were quite this unpleasant. However, I do recall a woman in the Mexico City airport who mildly upbraided me because I mistakenly asked her the time in English, having assumed that she was an American. And for all their enthusiasm for studying conversational English, the Japanese are not above complaining about the monolingualism of Americans. In Shogun Management (HarperBusiness, 1993), author William C. Byham, Phd, recounts the frustrations of Japanese businesspersons when dealing with English-speakers and “[the resentment] that many Japanese managers feel….Why is it always our side that must do business in a foreign language?”

Sometimes it does make sense to communicate with others in English, even if you are capable of communicating with them in their own language. There is no shame in using English in superficial interactions abroad with foreigners who have been hired for the specific purpose of assisting English-speakers. Also avoid the temptation to overestimate your own abilities. Humility in regard to this point is especially important if you begin the study of a language while living in the United States—where most of the native speakers you meet will have already mastered at least the basics of English.

Those who learn languages for professional purposes will also continue to use English in certain situations. I have been using the Japanese language since 1988, and I have translated professionally for major corporations. This doesn’t mean that I refuse to use English with native Japanese-speakers. On the contrary: my work in the United States often involves mixed groups consisting of Americans who don’t speak Japanese, and highly educated Japanese who have been living in America for five years or more. In these situations, it usually makes sense to speak English. Simultaneously, my work confronts me with numerous situations in which Japanese skills are essential. In these cases, I can switch to my “Japanese mode.”

Likewise, your work and travel abroad will be a mixture of superficial communications—in which English may serve as a lingua franca—and more in-depth communications that will rely on your abilities in Spanish, Russian, or Korean. The important thing to remember is that language skills give you the versatility to handle either situation.

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