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December 29, 2023

AI as interpreter cannot get you around the world

(This thesis was first published in Newsweek Japan in Japanese. The English translation is done by the English-Speaking Union of Japan)

Japanese have a poor command of English, and how this has hampered the image of Japan and the Japanese abroad! Recently, however, we keep hearing that anyone can communicate with foreigners using AI as interpreter, and there is no longer any need to study English.

It isn't all that simple. Let me explain.

More than half a century ago, when I studied at Harvard University, I could read and write in English, but my speaking and listening were abysmal. What the professors said in class sounded like birds twittering to me. I barely managed by reading the assigned books to pass exams, a process that felt like torture, requiring reading 200 pages a day. It took a whole year for me to manage to get by. In other words, it's absolutely necessary to immerse oneself in a foreign language environment, whether one likes it or not, for at least one year to acquire the necessary proficiency.

On top of that, the key lesson you can only learn from studying abroad is that sticking to the Japanese style or mindset cannot get you around the world. When the university introduced me to a host family, I struggled with how to address the host couple. In Japan, saying "okaasan" (mom) would be normal, but when I tried it, the harsh response I got was "I didn't give birth to you. Call me Mary." Thus, I came to learn that in the U.S., everyone is on an equal footing, with no rigid hierarchy.

On another occasion, my car was towed away for a parking violation. When I went to pick up the car, I found out that the car stereo had been stolen., When I complained to the police, the response was, "It's too bad. Did you have insurance?" That's when I learned the hard way the principle that one should deal with on one's own risk.

Today, with the advent of AI, many think that it is no longer necessary to study foreign languages. That's much too optimistic. Translating documents such as contracts could be done by AI, but even then, without rigorous checking, errors could be fatal. To sell products and services globally, you need more than just a catalog. Building connections, establishing trust, and networking are essential. While AI simultaneous translation might get you through a one-on-one meeting, it would seem a bit cumbersome during dinners or golf outings.

Japanese social and corporate norms are uncommon globally. Japanese businesspeople abroad must seek approval from headquarters for everything; business deals will slip away while you wait for the internal decision-making process at headquarters to be completed. It is a uniquely Japanese practice that when scandals hit a company, the CEO and other big shots parade themselves in public to bow deeply and express apology even before a judgment is made in the court of law.

The hierarchical structure of senpai-kohai (senior-junior) and the strict rank-consciousness between headquarters, branches and subcontractors manifest themselves in words and deeds of those concerned, but this does not align with Western norms. Additionally, Japanese people tend to read the situation around them and adjust what they say accordingly, which makes them appear as if they have no opinion of their own. This leads to the impression, wherever they go, that they are uninteresting and inexplicable.

In essence, it's not just about language. Many aspects of human relations and corporate organization in Japan are unique and cannot be translated by AI. If so, what's the solution?

The main hurdle in English language education in schools is the glaring scarcity of teachers with English language proficiency. 'English-proficient talents opt for well-paying jobs in foreign-affiliated companies. It is also true that not all students necessarily need to be proficient in English. Thus, what needs to be done is to create special intensive courses in English for motivated students. For the English language education (Chinese language education as well these days) of students in general, basic conversation and general education courses on foreign cultures may serve the purpose.

To learn how to interact with the world, there is no better way than to increase the opportunities tp study or be assigned abroad to work. The government is working on boosting study abroad programs, but short-term stays of one month are meaningless; Japanese students are likely to end up in closed groups of their own and merely 'observing' foreign countries.

Studying as American universities usually costs $50,000 per year. To make studying there feasible, the government and companies need to establish large scholarship funds. The current recruitment system where students must start job hunting from the third year of college is a hindrance and needs to be revamped. For example, it would be most effective to launch a separate recruitment system for students with degrees and credits obtained through studying abroad.

Japan is facing a declining birthrate and an aging population. But with mounting financial needs for social security, healthcare and defense, shrinking, exercising thrift would only lead to impoverishment. To achieve the necessary economic growth of 1-2% a year, Japan must tap into international markets. While not everyone needs to become 'international', there's a need to increase the number of individuals who boldly drill their way into the venture into the world.

Internationalization won't progress through condescending preaching and cosmetic juggling of numbers. We must create an environment where knowing a foreign language really works to one's benefit.