I know I would.
Last Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump spoke to three New York Times reporters in an exclusive interview in the Oval Office.
As is to be expected, it was a rather odd interview with plenty of “garbled” and “inaudible” moments, but one of the most interesting excerpts came when Trump was asked about a dinner he attended with the G20 leaders.
“So, I was seated next to the wife of Prime Minister Abe [Shinzo Abe of Japan], who I think is a terrific guy, and she’s a terrific woman, but doesn’t speak English,” Trump said.
“Like, nothing, right? Like zero?”, reporter Maggie Harberman asked. “Like, not ‘hello'”, Trump replied. Trump then said it was pretty hard because the dinner was probably an hour and 45 minutes long.
Media outlets were quick to find a video of First Lady Akie Abe giving a fifteen-minute long speech in English. The headlines basically write themselves with articles like “People think First Lady of Japan pretended to speak no English to avoid talking to Trump”, appearing within a few days of The Times interview.
The reality is more boring than that. The truth is Akie Abe’s English is not that good and she probably would have been uncomfortable conversing with anyone who sat beside her.
The Washington Post did a deep dive on the First Lady’s English and pointed out that she was reading from a script in the above video and that on her previous visits to the U.S. she has almost always used an interpreter. For example, in 2015 she used an interpreter for a visit to then-First Lady Michelle Obama and in 2014 she did not speak English during an interview with The Washington Post.
Abe can probably say more than “hello” but is far from being able to have a fluent conversation. In Japanese culture, there is also the concept of “face”, which encourages people to avoid embarrassment or conflict. Both of these are Trump’s speciality, so it makes sense that she wouldn’t want to be misinterpreted.
What people tend to forget is that English is difficult. It can take years of study for non-native speakers to get comfortable enough to have a conversation at a dinner party, regardless of the participants.
In Trump’s world, things are absolute. Either you speak English or you don’t at all. There are no “average” speakers. Just like there are no “good immigrants” or “nice Obama policies”.
Unfortunately, the world is a lot more subtle and nuanced than this. Nevertheless, The Japan Times notes that Mrs Abe did have an interpreter present at the dinner. So if she really wanted to communicate with Trump, she could have.
But can you blame her for not bothering?