January 29, 2009

Obama, English, Japan and Actions

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Our actions affect other people.

I was reminded of this in reading a recent Reuters news article about how newly elected US President Obama is helping Japanese people learn English.

“The Speeches of Barack Obama” is a textbook–a textbook, mind you!–that compiles all of Obama’s speeches from his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech to his victory speech when he secured the Democratic nomination this past year. It is written in English with corresponding Japanese translations, and comes with a CD presumably so that readers can perfect their pronunciation.

As of this date, this textbook has sold over 420,000 copies in Japan since its release on November 20. To put this in perspective, even Japan’s best-selling novels usually sell around a million copies in a year. Foreign-language books rarely sell more than 20,000 copies.

The sales are so strong that Asahi Press, which published the book, is already planning a sequel to include Obama’s inaugural address, along with President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address and President Lincoln’s Gettysburg address.

It makes sense to use this book as a learning aid. Obama’s speeches use a mixture of simple and more complicated vocabulary and sentence structures. No doubt his popularity is also helping with the sales. “In Japan, we don’t have politicians who have such a positive influence,” said Yuzo Yamamoto of Asahi Press in the Reuters article. “That’s why we have to turn to a foreign president for someone in whom to place our hopes.”

While I am sure he knew he would be an inspirational figure around the world, I doubt even he suspected he would make people to want to learn and practice English. It’s a reminder of what we often forget: What we do often has unintended consequences, some good and some bad. Yes, it is often impossible to consider all the ramifications of what we might do, but it is still important to try. We don’t live disconnected from other people, although we might think we are. When what we do hurts someone else, it is an opportunity for us to learn how to improve ourselves. And when what we do empowers other people, that is opportunity to celebrate.

Note: I usually do not delve into political material, but I am testing the waters with this piece. Please be civil, reasoned and on-topic in your comments.