Introduction: English-Speakers Lost in Translation

The film Lost in Translation received considerable acclaim in 2003 for its portrayal of two Americans who meet in Japan. The movie primarily deals with the themes of loneliness, alienation, and the wistfulness of an unconsummated romance. However, Lost in Translation also makes some revealing (if inadvertent) points about the struggles that monolingual English-speakers face when they are forced to rely on the language skills of others.

Lost in Translation casts Bill Murray in the lead role of actor Bob Harris. Bob Harris is a faded star who—not unlike many real-life actors whose glory days are behind them—is leveraging his earlier fame to earn money through television product endorsements. Harris is luckier than most Hollywood has-beens; he doesn’t have to resort to peddling steak knives or abdominal machines on cable TV. In fact, Harris has landed a fat contract with the Japanese beverage giant Suntory. As the movie opens, the actor is making his way through the exotic streets of urban Japan, where he will appear in a series of television commercials.

When Harris arrives on the studio set, he meets his director for the first time. The director speaks minimal English, and Harris will have to rely on an interpreter throughout the project. Although the actor appears to have some misgivings about the arrangement, he has obviously been through hundreds, if not thousands, of studio sessions before. He begins his first round of shooting with the confident air of an old pro.

In order to give the commercial a relaxed, upscale atmosphere, the studio set has been designed to look like a private study in an elegant home. Harris is instructed to sit at a small table with a bottle of Suntory whisky and a glass of the beverage. When the cameras roll, he is supposed to lift the glass and deliver the lines, “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time!” Simple enough.

But of course it will not be that simple. There are innumerable ways to deliver these lines, and a myriad of subtle messages that could be conveyed or garbled in the process. These are the nuances that directors are paid to manage, and Bob’s director is in a managing mood. Before the shooting begins, the director approaches Harris and gives him a lengthy explanation of how he wants the actor to deliver the lines. The director rhapsodizes about mood and voice inflection, timing and feeling. He rambles on for several minutes. In Japanese.

Harris of course understands none of this, and he turns anxiously to his interpreter when the director has finally finished speaking. This commercial is important to his flagging career—not to mention his wallet. He needs to understand what the director said. He is therefore counting on his interpreter. He smiles at her uneasily, waiting.

To Harris’s dismay, the interpreter gives him a single-sentence, ultra-simplified account of the director’s instructions. In fact, she just repeats what he already knew. He is supposed to raise his glass and say, “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time!” Harris knows that the director said much, much more than the interpreter revealed, but he is entirely dependent on her abilities. He wants to ask someone to wait, to stop, to have the interpreter explain the instructions in more detail. But to whom can he appeal?

When the camera rolls, Harris delivers his lines, and the director stops him, then reprimands him in Japanese for not following directions. Once again, the interpreter provides a minimal explanation of what has been said. They shoot again, Harris fumbles again, and the cycle continues. This situation becomes one of the running jokes of the movie.

Every movie requires a romantic plot (or at least a romantic subplot); and actress Scarlet Johansson plays the role of Charlotte, Harris’s romantic interest in the film. In one scene, he takes Charlotte to a Japanese hospital for treatment of a minor injury. In a continuation of the language barrier gag, Harris and Charlotte are completely unable to grasp what they see and hear. Hospital forms look like pages of random scribbles. The spoken words of receptionists, doctors, and orderlies are incomprehensible mysteries.

The misadventures of these fictional Americans illustrate a self-defeating fact about native English-speakers vis-à-vis the rest of the world:

For the most part, native English-speakers do not learn the languages of others. Therefore, we are overly dependent on the language skills of others—and their willingness (or lack thereof) to use them to our benefit…

Notice that I used the term “native English-speakers” rather than “Americans.” Americans have traditionally taken a lot of heat for our linguistic provincialism. Nonetheless, our British cousins are just as insular. The same goes for Anglophones in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. Wherever people speak English as a primary, native language, most of the population can speak nothing else. The English-speaking world is almost universally hobbled by monolingualism.

No one imposed this condition on us. We have chosen to restrict our own options. In a competitive world where gaining insights about other markets and cultures is of increasing importance, we have voluntarily limited our mode of intelligence gathering and influence to a single language. As Shakespeare wrote in Love’s Labor Lost, “They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen [only] the scraps.”

Objectives of this book

This book consists of two parts. Part I, Why You Need a Foreign Language, discusses the relevance of foreign languages for English-speakers. The chapters in this part of the book explore the concept of the lingua franca, the current status of various languages in the world, and probable trends for the future. In Part I you will find answers to questions like: Why did the language of tiny Britain become such a powerful linguistic force in the world? Why did Roman soldiers learn to speak Greek, when the language of Rome was Latin? How is the process of globalization likely to affect the worldwide usage of Chinese, Spanish, English, and Arabic?

Part II, How to Learn a Foreign Language, delves into the nuts and bolts of languages: What are language families? Which languages are relatively easy for native English-speakers to learn, and which present more of a challenge? How many tongues can you realistically learn? What are the basic characteristics of Spanish, French, Chinese, etc.?  Part II also includes information about applying languages to your career and professional development.

Languages do not exist in a vacuum. They are influenced by geopolitics, social and demographic trends, and economics. This book therefore contains some necessary detours into topics like history, business, and current events. These subjects are not mere diversions. The rise of manufacturing in China, the backlash against globalization, and the history of Japan’s ambivalent relationship with the West are just a few of the items that have shaped contemporary attitudes about languages.

The first edition of Why You Need a Foreign Language & How to Learn One was published in 2003. This edition has been significantly revised and expanded. While there are still several chapters that focus on the role of languages in the business world, the second edition takes a much wider look at the historical, cultural, and political factors that determine linguistic trends. The “how-to” chapters that deal specifically with language study are basically the same ones that appeared in the first edition, with a few minor updates and revisions.

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