Name: Yushi Kawarai
Nationality or Ethnicity: Japanese
Where do you live?: Hue, Vietnam
Fluent: Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, English, French, German.
Conversant: Thai, Lao, Spanish, Norwegian, Russian, Romanian.
Basic: Arabic, Hebrew, Dutch, Icelandic, Italian, Portuguese, Danish, Swedish, Farsi, Indonesian.
Reading: Sanskrit, Pali, Latin, Greek, Hán Nôm,* Chăm**.
*also called “Sino-Vietnamese”, Ancient Vietnamese
**the language of a minority ethnic in Vietnam
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 500 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