“The Foreign Language Study Method of the Prime Minister’s Interpreter” by Koichi Nakagawa, Kodansha Gendai Shinsho, January 2020



When he was in high school, he longed to become a diplomat, and when he entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he was assigned to Arabic. This book is a compilation of the author’s “method for achieving results in the shortest possible time”. The keys are “Original vocabulary book” and “Self-expression notebook” and “Speaking first”.

An event that led to me reading this book

In September, I went on a trip to Kanazawa with a colleague from my former job. On the way back, I was in a bookstore at Haneda Airport, where only books related to foreign languages were stored in a rotating steel rack. I casually looked at them and saw that they were all books labeled “English Brain” and “Native Brain.

For some reason, I did not touch those books, but was interested in the one titled “How to Study Interpretation”. The author’s introduction in the “Sode” (spine) says that he is a prime minister’s interpreter, and it seems that he is a current Ministry of Foreign Affairs bureaucrat. I thought it would be interesting to accompany Mr. Abe to interpret episodes with Obama and Trump. I also wanted to know the method he used to become a top-notch interpreter (as a prime minister interpreter) in a serious interpreting job where absolutely no mistakes were allowed.

Speaking First

First, I need to say no. That being said, I bought this book completely mistakenly. I thought he was an English interpreter. I was slightly disappointed when I learned that he is an Arabic interpreter, but I continued reading the book with the intention of absorbing the similarities in foreign language learning methods.

In the author’s case, he is a diplomat, so the purpose of learning Arabic is clear. He said, “I want to be able to conduct diplomatic negotiations in Arabic and English, and to be able to interpret in Arabic, and to do so successfully. It goes on to say, “I made ‘speaking’ the goal of all my learning and thought backwards from there.”

To this I now completely agree.

I, who “cannot say I can speak English” after studying English for almost 40 years, and I, who “can say I can speak Chinese to some extent” only 8 months after I started studying, have demonstrated this to some extent.

I believe that my Chinese improved in a short period of time because I thoroughly memorized short stories composed of plain sentences. Because I memorized them, things within the scope of what I had learned came out of my mouth immediately. I find myself speaking normally. Even if I don’t understand half of what the other person says, I can still have a conversation if I listen to it several times. That’s why you feel like you’ve done it.

Essence of Study Methods

He says you don’t need 1% of talent to learn a foreign language. What is important is the right method, humility, and effort. This is a word of encouragement for those who immediately quit because they think they have no sense, or for those who dream of learning to speak a foreign language over and over again, only to fail because they think it is impossible.

Japanese people’s characteristics of being humble and honest are suited for learning foreign languages. This may also be true.

In learning a foreign language, getting started is “the key.”

We recommend that you make a dash for the start before that motivation is extinguished.

This is because, just like an airplane, you must first move your brain above the world of foreign languages before you can put it on a steady flight.

After I studied in Egypt, I was told by the aforementioned Professor Tonsey to give it my all for the first three months, and that a good start in a language is important, and I did just that.

The Foreign Language Study Method of the Prime Minister’s Interpreter, Koichi Nakagawa, Kodansha Gendai Shinsho, P48

The story of an airplane taking off is easy to visualize. I guess what he’s trying to say here is that it’s hard when you’re starting up. Or does he mean that you have to take it to a habit while you are highly motivated? I think it is probably the latter.

When you are able to read and understand a certain sentence, you confirm it with your ears. The emphasis here is on listening to “only the sentences you understand.” Again, the trick to listening is to listen to only those sentences that you have learned and ‘review’ them over and over again, without skimming.” I understood this to mean that I should listen thoroughly before applying paraphrased expressions, etc.

Native Brain

The author has a clear thought about it.

Japanese first. First, think about what you are going to say in Japanese, and then “replace” it with a foreign language.

From now on, please change your mindset to one in which you first decide what you want to say (output) in Japanese, and then input the foreign language to replace it with the Japanese.

From now on, think of the textbooks as a box of materials for translating what you want to say into a foreign language, and choose the one you want to use.

The Foreign Language Study Method of the Prime Minister’s Interpreter, Koichi Nakagawa, Kodansha Gendai Shinsho, P66, 68

The author’s work does not allow for any kind of “what-if”, so this is the way he thinks from the beginning. I don’t think the method to create a “native brain” is wrong. However, I tried it for a while, but it is a very hard way to study because I have to listen and read only in English, without any translation, which means that I can only consult an English-English dictionary for words I don’t understand. In addition, in business situations in Japanese society, it is necessary for those who understand to provide interpreting assistance, so the “native brain” is not as useful as one might think.

Output” is better than “Input

Not starting with reading, they say, is the “devil’s whisper. I did not really understand the author’s reason, but since there are few people who can speak in Japanese education that starts with reading, I will just leave that lesson here.

It is very convincing that the author casts doubt on the idea of listening only to sounds to develop listening ability.

In the first place, in what situations is listening necessary? Whether it’s business or daily situations, it is the case where communicating with foreigners which means that you talk and listen to them. In that sense, listening should essentially be considered in combination with speaking.”

The Foreign Language Study Method of the Prime Minister’s Interpreter, Koichi Nakagawa, Kodansha Gendai Shinsho, P80

And the author’s success story is simply described in the following words.

I started with learning output. I learned a lot of words, expressions, and sentences for speaking, and as I “sent” them out, I was able to understand what the other person was saying, in other words, I was able to “receive” as my level of speaking improved.

The Foreign Language Study Method of the Prime Minister’s Interpreter, Koichi Nakagawa, Kodansha Gendai Shinsho, P82

The story turns to English. Since English has only been inputted in large quantities up to now, I was told to classify words into the following three categories.

Words that have been output (vocalized)
Words that have never been output

The latter are then divided into two categories: “Words that I could not vocalize from Japanese, but I knew when I saw the English, in other words, I remembered them in my brain★” and “Words that I could not understand when I saw the English”.

★ are words that should be targeted to bridge the distance between input and output, and this is important. The reason for this is that they are far more likely to be used orally than unfamiliar words.

Specific Methods

For those who want to know how to learn a foreign language, here is the key. I was very interested in two of them, which are positioned as the basics. I would like to introduce them and express my thoughts on them.

Self-expression notebook

Students should make the best use of the subject matter they are studying to create sentences that introduce themselves and summarize their opinions, and write these notes down and memorize them so that they can speak on their own at any time.

I call this “self-expression notebook.

(omission) Please start by creating this “self-expression notebook” in “Japanese.

The Foreign Language Study Method of the Prime Minister’s Interpreter, Koichi Nakagawa, Kodansha Gendai Shinsho, P94-95

This is quite a difficult task if you decide to do it. First of all, if you start writing what you want to say completely in Japanese, you will be frustrated because you do not have the corresponding English at hand. This is something the author also mentions later, but it is very important to find “learning subjects that are useful for self-delivery”. Starting with self-introductions, there will be plenty of material for cabs, telephone calls, shopping, etc. However, when it comes to company business, in my case I was an auditor, I could not find any in commercial textbooks. I would need the support of a native speaker who could correct me.

What I am thinking now is to concentrate on writing in Japanese and then putting it through an AI translator and tentatively translating it into English. Based on that, I will revise it into English that I can understand reasonably well with my current ability. I can do this on your own up to this point, but I should be careful about the parts I would never use or come up with such phrases. I can mark them with a marker or replace them with my own phrases.

On top of that, I want a review from my instructor. It would also be a good idea to have it corrected by an online English conversation service. However, in my experience, some teachers are good at correcting English sentences and others are not. Some are too detail-oriented, some rewrite everything, some say everything is OK, and some don’t understand what I want to say in the first place. So I need to take my time to choose the right teacher for me.

Original Vocabulary Book

This is the most interesting part of the book. You may think that a vocabulary book is super analog nowadays and that it is meaningless to memorize such a book after all these years.

I believe that words that are used frequently are in the upper layers of the brain and remain fresh, while words that are not used regularly are either buried deep in the brain as garbage or stuck to the walls as grime.

(Omission) Therefore, in order to instantly retrieve the words you need in a business situation, you need to keep your brain in a fresh state, and avoid keeping the garbage or stained words in the same place in your brain.

For this reason, we strongly recommend that you create your own “original vocabulary book,” which contains only the words you currently need.

The key point of the “original vocabulary book” is to focus on words that you are likely to transmit to foreigners.

Therefore, the base of the “original vocabulary notebook” will be the “self-expression notebook” proposed earlier and the subject matter you have chosen yourself.

The Foreign Language Study Method of the Prime Minister’s Interpreter, Koichi Nakagawa, Kodansha Gendai Shinsho, P110-112

The reason why I was interested in this is because I was attracted to the concept of “selecting only the words that are currently necessary for me”. I have never made a vocabulary book with such an idea before. I felt that if I changed from being passive to active, I would naturally review my vocabulary book.

The author seems to have done this by hand, but I could use Excel, Google Spreads, or even a vocabulary book app. I am thinking of using SmaTan or WordHolic, which I downloaded a long time ago and no longer use, to rebuild it again.

Revised by me based on what is translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)