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Interview with

Yushi Kawarai

Name: Yushi Kawarai
Nationality or Ethnicity: Japanese
Where do you live?: Hue, Vietnam

Fluent: Japanese, Korean, Chinese (Mandarin), Vietnamese (Standard and Hue dialect), English, French, German.

Conversant: Thai, Lao, Burmese, Indonesian, Malaysian, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian

Basic: Cantonese, Arabic, Hebrew, Romanian, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, Farsi, Khmer, Tagalog, Sinhala, Tamil, Georgian

Reading: Sanskrit, Pali, Latin, Greek, Tibetan, Hán Nôm,* Chăm**.

*also called “Sino-Vietnamese”, Ancient Vietnamese

**the language of a minority ethnic in Vietnam

Member since:


A video of my appearance on Vietnamese television is available here.

1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?

Although  I’m a specialist of Han Nom in Vietnam now, I used to major in  Astrophysics at Nottingham, England! I was born into a family that was a  landlord for 600 years in Ibaraki, Japan. As my parents divorced and my  father was a busy teacher, my grandparents brought me up. So I speak a  dialect which our generations are forgetting. Looking up a myriad of  stars at night, my dream of childhood was an astronaut or an  astrophysicist, eventually all teachers of high school encouraged me to  go ahead since my academic performance of natural science was so good  that I was endowed with 2 Maths prizes and a scholarship of Physics for  university study, while I knew only 2 languages by the age of 18, just  near the university entrance examinations. You may know that very few  Japanese are good at English, which is totally different from our  language, yes, English is very hard to us. Then, how come we can learn  more languages? Most of them think English is enough. My first contact  with a foreign language was Thai! In a magazine for primary school  pupils, there was a story of a disobedient elephant. They order him in  Japanese but he never obeys, then a specialist orders in Thai, for he  was from Thailand. It was impressive to me. At grade 8, in the music  class at secondary school, we listened to Erlkönig of Franz Peter  Schubert in German. It was “shocking” because the song and lyrics  described the scene vividly. However, I was not yet passionate enough to  begin German at that time. Have you heard the word Synaesthesia? I have  one which is grapheme-colour that means I “see” colours in characters,  numbers and so on. For me, a Synaesthete, different languages have each  own order of colours. Through the life I knew others don’t have it. I  have once come out it to a good friend, who advised me to take a colour  blindness test! Before the university entrance examinations, I happened  to read a Russian learning book in a book store and found Cyrillic  lettres more colourful than Latin alphabet. I went there every day and  finished reading a Russian grammar book without buying it. Ever since, I  realised languages are more suitable for me. Then my passion for  languages exploded and never let me hesitate to challenge new languages.  Firstly, I wanted to study in Germany because the tuition fees were  free even for foreigners so I went to Berlin to improve my German. My  stay in Germany was a great fun, however, most of my friend were from  France, Belgium and French-speaking area of Switzerland. My opinion that  English is not all was right. They spoke French all the time, which  forced me to start studying French. My roommate in England was from  Zaragoza, Spain. We always have parties with friends from Spain and  Latin America who always speak Spanish. To get into the community, I had  to learn Spanish this time! In 2010, which is the memorial year of  Thang Long the capital (Ha Noi now), my friend with whom I played  badminton doubles invited me to Vietnam. I immediately fell in love with  Da Nang, Hoi An and Hue, in central Vietnam. After returning back to  England to continue my study, I missed Vietnam so much, so after having  considered well, I left the UK and began studying Vietnamese from the  beginning at Vietnam National University, University of Humanities and  Social Science in Ho Chi Minh City, then 3 months later, I completed the  advanced level and applied for university. I did BA Philology and MA  Vietnamese Literature, and my PhD is Han Nom. Han Nom was invented from  Chinese characters, so it is also a necessary language. While I do  research of Champa Kingdom, so I learn Cham, Sanskrit and Arabic as  well. My hobby is learning languages, so whenever I am free, I teach  myself new ones. I like reading, but try to read in the original.  “traduire, c’est trahir (To translate is to betray)”.

2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?

I’d  like to improve my French because one of my dreams is to write novels  in French. Also, this is the only language I got fluent in by myself,  without studying abroad or schooling. I’m currently challenging “À la  recherche du temps perdu” of Marcel Proust. If I successfully obtain a  scholarship, I’d like to do my 2nd PhD in France.

3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?

Ainu,  Farsi, Sinhalese and Tamil. Ainu is a minority ethnic in Hokkaido,  Japan. But most of them are assimilated and there are very few speakers.  I love Persian Literature, in particular Saadi’s Golestan and Bustan  and Omar Khaiyam’s Rubaiyat. Sinhalese and Tamil are the national  languages of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka and Japan have a unforgettable  friendship. In post-war San Francisco Conference, which was actually  where other nations were to require Japan to compensate for the damage  caused by Japan during the war. However, the representative of Ceylon,  Junius Richard Jayewardene abandoned the right quoting Buddhist sutra  Dhammapada “Hatred ceases not by hatred, but by love.” I heard this  story at the age of 11 from my grandfather who was in army during the  war, ever since he is my ideal and I have admired Sri Lanka.

4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?

I  should say it’s French but let me say Thai. I used to practise Muay  Thai under the direction of Thai trainers. When Thai women speak so  softly and put “kha” at the end of the sentence, it sounds so lovely!

5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?

Knowing  a new language is obtaining a new way of thinking. The more languages  you know, the wider and the more flexible your mind will be. Also, you  can make friends with more people easily. Yes some people tell me that I  have plenty of friends all over the world thanks to my language skills.  This is not right. I always talk with my heart!

6. Some people say the world is really just going to have a few languages left in a 100 years, do you think this is really true?

The  truth is languages are disappearing every year. It is very sad since  languages have culture and history. But I don’t think only a few  languages are left in 100 years. In addition, the more we are concerned  with this problem, the more languages will remain. We must respect every  language.

7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?

Languages  can be lead to specialisations, jobs, tools or even the best hobbies  ever. Some people claim that we must start learning languages when we  are still children, or we must be talented? No way! I knew only Japanese  and English but am multilingual now. My pronunciation is not perfect  but anybody understands. I’m not good at music at all, my school grade  was 2 out of 5. Knowing a new language is creating a new personality  inside yourself. It will definitely widen your view. We are waiting for  your joining HYPIA

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