This book has focused on the practical benefits of learning a foreign language. We have discussed language as a tool for getting a better job, closing a sale, and learning more about our strategic and commercial competitors. While all these hard-boiled reasons for learning a foreign language are perfectly valid, by themselves they present a one-sided picture.
When you learn a foreign language, you will have a chance to step into other cultures in a way that is simply not possible otherwise. Some of the fondest memories of my career are drawn from the time I spent in Aguascalientes, a medium-sized city in central Mexico. I interacted with many interesting people, a few of whom I am still in contact with today. I had a chance to deeply experience a fascinating country that is a mixture of the Spanish, Aztec, and Mayan cultures. As much as I love the United States, my adventures there could never have been exactly duplicated in the USA.
One of the benefits of exploring other cultures is that they will give you new insights into your own. You will discover some aspects of the foreign culture that you prefer. At the same time, you will also encounter aspects of the foreign culture that give you a greater appreciation for life in your own part of the world.
Most people undergo an initial “honeymoon phase” when they step into another culture, during which they believe that everything on the other side is inherently more sophisticated and enlightened. When I first began working with Japanese companies about 15 years ago, I was convinced that Japanese management practices were vastly superior to American management practices. My impressions were bolstered by the “Japanese-style management” craze that was currently sweeping through the American business and academic communities. I absorbed all the good press about Japanese companies: they emphasize teamwork, they take care of their own, and they focus on quality.
After a decade and a half working with Japanese companies, I can tell you that much of the good press turned out to be true. Japanese companies are, on average, more team-oriented and harmonious. In my opinion, they have fewer problems with management power plays and factional strife. And the quality of Japanese products is confirmed every year, when Honda and Toyota take a large percentage of the top spots in consumer satisfaction and industry surveys.
But I also discovered that not everything about Japanese companies is positive. They are typically more bureaucratic and less efficient than their American counterparts. Even the simplest decisions can require hours of meetings in the interest of building a redundant consensus.
In Japan, the company invades the employee’s personal life to an extent that few Americans would find acceptable. In order to build group harmony, Japanese company employees often must spend their precious free hours drinking and socializing with their colleagues. This means that few Japanese workers have much time for family life or personal enrichment activities.
My exposure to Japanese culture has not lessened my appreciation for the aspects of American culture which I most value: individuality and personal freedom. Nor has my identity as an American prevented me from admiring the positive traits of the Japanese work and cultural environments.
When you can fully understand what is written and said on both sides of a national boundary, you have a basis for weighing the relative merits of “their ways” versus “our ways.” This is perhaps the greatest reward in learning another language. You gain not only another mode of communication, but another way in which to see the world.