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Kevin Maher, the U.S. Consul General in Naha, Okinawa, starts his day by reading Japanese-language newspapers.

He is known for conducting press conferences with the local media without an interpreter. Yet, despite his strong command of the language, he says he learns new words almost daily.

“It is not unusual at all that I have to look something up in a dictionary,” he said in an interview in his Naha office.

Speaking a second language can broaden your horizons and boost career opportunities.

But relying on a foreign language in a job requires endless commitment, Maher said.

To master Japanese, for instance, much effort must be put in learning kanji, the Chinese characters. A high school graduate is expected to read and write 1,945 kanji characters. Most Japanese-language word processors accommodate about 20,000.

“If you are going to be professional speaker of Japanese, you need to be able to read,” Maher stressed. “That’s a big challenge for foreigners.”

The State Department classifies Japanese, Chinese and Korean as especially difficult languages for Americans to learn, partly because of kanji, he said.

Many foreigners err by focusing on speaking Japanese and abandoning reading because they get frustrated studying kanji.

“I think that is a very serious mistake,” he said.

For Sheryl Kohatsu, the public affairs officer for the Navy’s Commander, Fleet Activities Okinawa, being bilingual has opened many doors. Besides her day job, she is a popular Japanese radio personality.

The child of an American sailor and Japanese mother, she grew up in a Japanese neighborhood on Okinawa while attending an American school. Speaking Japanese was second-nature, but reading and writing it was another story, she said.

One day when she was about 9, she asked a friend to let her borrow a popular Japanese comic book. Her friend said, “But you cannot read Japanese.”

It was then she swore to herself to read and write the language.

To this day, whenever she comes across a word she doesn’t know, she can’t sleep without looking it up.

Maher said bilingual children also grow up to be bicultural. He said that it is always interesting to watch his 21-year-old daughter, the youngest of his three children, talking with her friends.

“When they speak Japanese, they use Japanese expressions and they look Japanese,” he said. “And when they speak English, they act like Americans. They don’t just move between the languages, they move between the two cultures.”


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