Learning a language always starts at zero. I remember starting Ukrainian language lessons before going to our Embassy in Kyiv and not knowing a single word -- it was a thrill to open to the first page and see there: Tak = Yes; Ni= No. With these two words I am now on my way, I thought.
But it is a long process. In learning foreign languages, I try not to reveal how little I know at the beginning, which can sometimes lead to awkward results. When asked a "yes" or "no" question, even if I do not have a clue what I am being asked I will confidently answer, say, "Yes!" If the listener suddenly expresses shock I will quickly say, "No?" which usually leads to a look of relief.
I signed up for a Japanese language course at the University of California Berkeley on a lark, since I had never been to Japan, met a Japanese person, or even studied Japanese history or culture. My encounter with the language, from the very first day, changed my life.
But when I first landed in Japan I was terrified to open my mouth. Reluctant to venture into a restaurant I finally found a vending machine that sold little bottles of milk. I still can taste how delicious that first swallow of milk was.
I worked with Japanese on a project where no one spoke English so I struggled with my then very limited Japanese. One day an American friend dropped by and we happily jabbered away in English. After my friend left, one of the Japanese looked at me mystified. "Until I heard you speaking in English today, I thought you had a speech impediment," he said. Oh well. I eventually got the hang of it.
It was an adventure to discover "kanji" and I relied on my "Nelson: The Original Modern Reader’s Japanese-English Character Dictionary," a small book that helped you learn how to practice the basic characters (not always easy as a left-hander), and even "Kojien," which somehow managed to give very simple definitions of the most complex terms. I still use these books today, long after most students have switched to using apps.
Before I joined the Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer I worked as a journalist in Tokyo for a year, a job I got because I spoke and read Japanese and I saw how language is a great way to get into new fields.
And I have added other languages since, but it is important to be on alert for language confusion. When I was studying Spanish at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, I left the class to go home one rainy day and then remembered that I had forgotten my umbrella. I went back and said with confidence, "Se me olvido mi casa." I thought I was saying I had forgotten my umbrella but had used the word "casa" instead, which of course means “house.” The teacher and students thought it hilarious that I had forgotten my house.
In April 2014 President Obama and Prime Minister Abe committed to the goal of doubling the number of exchanges between the two countries by 2020, since it is so important that we continually nurture those people-to-people ties. And language is key to that communication. For those who are studying English -- or foreigners studying Japanese -- keep at it, and remember that we all start from "yes" and "no."