Episodes in Milan

GLOBAL LEADERS PROGRAM  Faculty of Economics  Dean, Graduate School of Economics &  Faculty of Economics (since April 2013)  Jota Ishikawa

I am Jota Ishikawa, the new Dean of the Faculty of Economics from April 2013. In this column, I would like to convey my thoughts concerning globalization based on my own experiences and reflections.

Episodes in Milan: What is the Key to Communication?

I often have the chance to go overseas to attend conferences or conduct fieldwork, and during these experiences I frequently get the impression that, in fact, English is less commonly used in advanced countries than in developing countries. I have been carrying out fieldwork in South Asian countries every year for the last several years, but have yet to encounter a situation where I got stuck because of English communication there. On the other hand, however, I have run into trouble many times due to people not being able to communicate in English in countries such as Italy, Spain, and France (I should mention however that the situation in France seems to have been changing – it is surprising how widely English had come to be used in Paris when I visited there last year). For instance, I was often frustrated by even very simple things such as purchasing a train ticket. However, thinking back, foreigners visiting Japan must often encounter the same situation.

When I was a graduate student, I visited an old classmate who was working in Milan. I stayed at his house, and took a day trip to Florence by myself. I enjoyed seeing the sights, and everything was fine until I got back on the train to return to Milan. Just five minutes before departure, an announcement suddenly came on, and passengers began to get off. Because the announcement was only in Italian I did not understand what was going on at all. I got off the train with the other passengers anyway, and tried to find out what was happening; but not a single person could understand English! I tried talking to one person after another, until finally I was able to find someone who could speak English and therefore tell me about the situation. According to them, the train appeared to be cancelled due to a strike, and upon hearing that my mind just went blank. In the end the train went to Milan anyway, so although there was a significant delay everything worked out.

I have another memory from my time in Milan. More than ten years ago I gave some intensive lectures at Bocconi University there. My wife and son, who was only one-and-a-half at the time, accompanied me, and we stayed at the university residence for about two weeks. Among the custodial staff at the residence there was only one person who could speak English, and he went home at 3 pm every day. One day, I realized that we were running out of toilet paper. It was already after 3 pm, and no one there could understand what I was saying. We did not have a Japanese-Italian dictionary either. What could I do? Just then, a great idea came to me: I could try to find a picture of toilet paper in the picture books which we had brought from Japan for our son! Fortunately, I was able to find a page with just such a picture, and managed to get some toilet paper by showing it to the custodian.

Back then, English was certainly spoken in restaurants or shops which were primarily aimed at tourists; however, in most shops people only spoke Italian. Such a situation could be very difficult for a foreign family with small children. It is never an easy job to eat out frequently with an infant, and life with an infant produces an enormous amount of laundry every day. But mothers are strong! My wife went out shopping all by herself, and managed to buy food for our son every day. How did she do it, when she was not able to speak Italian? Later on, I learned that she communicated through body language – she mimicked a chicken at a meat shop, for instance. Furthermore, to my surprise, she completely mastered how to use a washing machine and dryer at a coin-operated laundry only two days after our arrival in Milan. Here too she had done her best with gestures, and learned how to use the machines from someone in the laundry. These episodes tell us something very important about communication – the key to communication is not the language itself, but rather a willingness both to express oneself and to understand what others are saying.

By the way, I felt that Italy is a very nice and friendly country for small children. Whenever we took a tram, someone was always willing to help us load and unload the stroller, for example. Even when we went to a restaurant with our small son, no one gave us bad looks.

Italy also has delicious food and many good sightseeing spots: it would be perfect if English were more commonly used and public safety was a bit better!

Jota Ishikawa,
Dean, Graduate School of Economics & Faculty of Economics (since April 2013)
June 2013

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