“What Color Do I See?”‘–Language Acquisition as the Gateway to Empathy

I was invited to give a presentation at the Multicultural Connections Club in downtown Chicago on the subject of learning foreign languages and its importance in our increasing global economy.    This is a preliminary version of my opening remarks on how I got interested in learning foreign languages and why I feel it is important for everyone in the public or private sector to start making the effort to learn a foreign language, even though some people say English is “the international language”.

I.  My Passion for Foreign Languages

My passion for foreign languages started at the early age of 5.   My mother’s younger brother, Leroy, got divorced and feeling restless, decided to answer an employment ad for an engineer at a company down in Honduras.    He lived in a town on the northern coast called La Ceiba, and after a while started acculturating himself to the people, the climate, and the language.   He married a Honduran woman named Hilda, and they came to the United States for a honeymoon tour.   He stopped at our house in a suburb of Chicago so he could introduce his new wife to my mother and my father.   My mother and Hilda were talking in the living room drinking coffee, while Leroy and my father were enjoying whiskey and smoking cigars in the dining room.    They were talking about the difference between life here in America and life in Honduras.

Braving the cloud of smoke surrounding the two, I approached my uncle and asked him what I thought was a good question.   “How come you live in a place that’s so far away?”   “Well, kid,” he said, after taking another puff on the cigar, “if you knew my ex-wife Rosie, you know why I’d want to leave the country.”    My dad laughed, but then–everything was in an uproar.   My mother heard what Leroy said and she didn’t think it was funny.    She came in from the living room and started yelling at him in English, and his wife Hilda was saying something to him, but what she said sounded like gibberish. He turned to my mother and said, “sorry, sis, it was just a joke”, and then immediately turned to his wife and said, “lo siento, solamente fue una broma”!    But to my young ears, again it sounded like gibberish–but she seemed to understand him.    I asked Hilda, “did you understand him just now?”   Her anger at Leroy softened by my question, she answered that he was speaking in another language, and she proceeded to answer a barrage of questions that this revelation sparked.   “Hey, Mom,” I soon called, “do you know that they have a different word for EVERYTHING?”

I was determined that, when I grew up,  I would learn to speak a foreign language just like my uncle.    Well, in junior high school, I had the chance to learn Spanish in school, and just then, my grandmother was hosting some Honduran young women who were living in Chicago learning how to be nurses.    My grandmother would teach them English, and taught them how to cook American food (with the matchmaker motive of wanting to make them even more attractive to American men).    I visited my grandmother and the young women encouraged me to practice Spanish.

in high school, a summer trip our high school choir made to both France and Germany sparked me to want to learn both German and French when I returned.     I studied these languages in high school and then continued in college while I was studying engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.   I noticed that I was getting towards graduation, I was taking fewer math and physics courses and more language courses.    I was wondering if there was a way to combine my interest in technical subjects like math and physics and my language studies at the same time.

An opportunity came along when a physics professor at the university, Lillian Hoddeson, was working on an International Project in the History of Solid State Physics, which was research the story of the solid-state physicists who fled Nazi Germany and ended up emigrating to Britain and the United States and changing the course of physics not just during the war, but after it as well.    She needed someone who understand physics AND who was fluent in German, and I just happened to be at the right place at the right time (with the right skills, of course).   I got to go to the Deutsches Museum in Munich to work on translating the German parts of the manuscript called “Out of the Crystal Maze” into English.    There, the director of the German portion of the project told me that, when I returned to the United States, if I really wanted to make a niche for myself, I should study Japanese and/or Chinese, because technical translators for those subjects were really hard to find.

When I returned to the U.S., I decided to take his advice and entered the Asian Studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign at the Masters level.   I couldn’t decide which I wanted to study more, so I studied them both, and ended up doing essentially a double major.    I was interested in doing technical translation, of course, but the University in its wisdom said that I needed to study history, philosophy, and literature of each country if I were to really become an effective translator.    I am so happy I did so, because studying the culture which produced the language was the key to a deeper understanding of the language itself.

While I was studying these languages, I was an student guide for those graduate students n the International MBA program, many of whom were from China and Japan.    This gave me additional chance to practice the language of course, and one Japanese guy in particular became a very good friend of mine, because we shared a passion for science fiction.    We started the Language Exchange Club on Friday afternoons so that the Japanese students at the university who were trying to practice their English could practice with American students at the university who were trying to practice their Japanese.    This proved to be an effective method, because students of both countries shared a mutual interest in alcohol–which was convenient because the “Language Exchange Club” met a local graduate student bar after classes were done on Friday.

When my friend Andy (his real Japanese name was Atsuki) came back after winter break, he told me, “Jerry-san, I have some great news for you!”   He told me how he had talked to the people at Mitsubishi Motors where he worked and where he would return after his sabbatical was done in May, about my abilities to do technical translation.    The HR department was just started on such a search, so Andy asked me to give him my resume, and he would send it to Japan with a suitable cover letter.    In two weeks, I got a call from the head of HR saying he was going to fly out to Illinois in March (during our Spring Break) to interview me for a position at Mitsubishi Motors.    I was so excited I could hardly sleep the night before, but when it came time to the interview, it was not like an interview I had had before–or since, to tell you the truth.    Rather than getting right to the point of what the position was like, what my qualifications were, etc., they asked me about my interest in Japanese language and culture, and I was very open with them about how I found it very interesting, and named some of the subjects I was taking in preparation for my final  exams in May.    They asked me to read a PR piece about one of their new automobiles, and summarize it for them.   Although there many words I didn’t know, I knew enough to know the basic points that the piece was making, and I gave them a 60-second summary of what was in the article.    After I did so, the two people there from the HR department looked at each other, and then started talking to me about salary and benefits and I realized, “wow, I just passed the interview.”

Later, Andy told me that there had been concern about hiring a “foreigner”, because there were concerns that even if the foreigner could understand Japanese, the Japanese and American culture were so different they were afraid that I wouldn’t be able to adapt.    Andy told me before the interview to just be myself, and he knew that if I spoke with my usual passion about Japanese culture, they would know that they had the right person for the job.

I ended up working for a total of 14 years for Mitsubishi Motors, and another 5 years for a Japanese insurance company Tokio Marine.    After coming here to Chicago in 2013, I originally thought that Chicago would not be as global a city as the places I’ve before, like Tokyo, New York City, and Los Angeles.   But I am pleasantly surprised to have been mistaken.  When I put on the 2014 Professional Development Day series of workshops for the Chicagoland chapter of the Project Management Institute, I found the theme of the day-long event in the title of a book by a Chicago historian named Thomas Dyja which he entitled “The Third Coast:   When Chicago Built the American Dream”.   I made the title of the event “The Third Coast Goes Global,” to describe the impact that the global economy is having on the city of Chicago and the field of project management, and how Chicago might someday influence that same global economy with the influx of the many international corporations and the people from all over the world who have came to live and work here.

2.  What Color Do I See?

But you may be saying, well, that’s all right for you, you’ve got a passion for languages–but why should I be interested in learning a foreign language, why is it so important?    Everybody in the world wants to learn English, because it is the international language of business, right?

Let me explain why language is important in today’s economy by explaining a simple experiment done by a developmental psychologist called Jean Piaget.   He was interested in mapping out the various stages that children go through in their cognitive development as children, from birth to the teenager years.    The experiment I’ll describe is called “What Color Do I See?”    This was done with children who were in pre-school age, and then again after they entered elementary school.    The experiment was done with a ball, piece of paper, or other object that had two sides, one side painted one color, let’s say “blue”, and the other side painted another color, let’s say “yellow.”

The experimenter would go to the child and show the object on both sides,  and asked the child to name the color he or she saw on each side of the object.     Then the experimenter showed, let’s say, the “yellow” side to the child, and asked “what color do you see?”   The child would answer “yellow.”    Great!    Then the experimenter would turn the object around and say, “what color do I see?”   If the child was in the “pre-operational” of development, usually occurring between 2 and 7 years of age, the child would continue to say “yellow”, because that’s the color that the child was currently seeing in front of him or her.    However, if the child had passed into the next stage of development, the “concrete operational” stage of development, the child would answer correctly “blue”, and not “yellow”.

You see, children at the pre-operational stage find difficulty seeing things from different viewpoints.   It’s interesting that the pre-operational stage flows into the concrete operational stage just when children are mastering the intricacies of language.    Words are used not just to relate to the outside world, but they allow children, and later, people to communicate with each other.    It is the birth of empathy in a child.

Children pass into the formal operational stage, where they cannot only mentally manipulate symbols like words, but can mentally access the rules behind the words.    But there are adults who, just like children at the pre-operational stage, get stuck in egocentric thinking and find it hard to believe that there is a world out there beyond the world they can access with their senses.

For example, there was that Senator who decided to “prove” that there was no such thing as global warming by going out on that cold Washington morning and retrieving a snowball that he showed on the chamber floor with great rhetorical flourish.    I couldn’t believe my eyes–I thought for his next trick he would go and eat a Big Mac on CSPAN to prove that there was no such thing as world hunger!

Let me tell you a story or two how knowing the language and culture of another country helped me in my business negotiations, and how it helped international negotiations during a crisis called the Cuban Missile Crisis.   Then I will show you how you can lean a foreign language in a lot less time and in a lot easier way than you probably thought possible.

This concludes my preliminary remarks for the presentation.    The rest of the speech will be taken from examples from my career at Mitsubishi Motors, and then the Cuban Missile Crisis story will be retold from a speech I did at Toastmasters on the subject (see Search function for text of that speech).   Then I will give my tips and hints to the audience based on the Fluent in 3 Months book by the Irish polyglot Benny Lewis…


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