Issue 5.4: August/September 2002

Seeking a Common Tongue


story by J.W. Junker
photo by Kyle Rothenborg


What do you call someone who speaks two languages equally well? Bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks only one language? An American. An old joke, perhaps, but even in Hawaii, with its marvelously multicultural vocabulary (mahalo, ogenki desu ka, talofa, mabuhay), few of us fully appreciate the importance of learning foreign languages really well. And that, according to educator Sigfried Ramler, holds us back; not only in economic outreach, but also in our sense of the world as a truly global community. "It’s important to understand the history and culture of your origins," Ramler says. "But in this age of growing globalization, it’s imperative we try to understand other cultures as well."

Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re
"Gentle in method, determined in deeds"

A Hawaii-based linguist of international renown, Sig has devoted himself for more than half a century to teaching languages and instilling in others a sense that the world is both wondrously diverse and remarkably interconnected. For his efforts, he has received some extremely high honors, including the French National Order of Merit and the Japanese Order of the Sacred Treasure, but for Sig, as for most idealists, the greatest achievements always lie ahead.

"My dream is to see foreign language training in the elementary grades," he says, "even in kindergarten. And to make international exchange programs a priority in every school." At the core of these hopes is his deep belief that the sharing of languages offers a path to greater peace and tolerance in the world, as well as a means to overcome fanaticism. "In the past year, better understanding between peoples has become more essential than ever," he says. "And education is the key."

Sig’s first insights into the importance of global thinking came in the late 1940s, when he worked as an interpreter at the Nuremberg Trials, the world’s first international war-crimes tribunal. A logistical maze for diplomats and lawyers, Nuremberg also posed an unprecedented dilemma for interpreters. "The trials were held in four main languages: French, Russian, German and English," Sig explains. "Translating everything consecutively was out of the question, so we devised a transmitting system with headsets and channel boxes, which allowed all four languages to be heard simultaneously."

Simultaneous interpretation had been tried before but had never proven successful, since it requires not only reliable equipment and excellent language skills, but also incredible focus and fast reflexes. Such challenging work is both mentally and physically exhausting. "We worked two-hour shifts, if you can imagine that," Sig says with a chuckle. "Today, the norm is fifteen minutes. Now it’s a science, but we had no history to fall back on; we were flying by the seat of our pants."

Aohe e pulu, he waa nui
"You don’t get wet in a big canoe"

The simultaneous interpretation system created at Nuremberg still serves as the international standard. In 1949, at the end of the trials, the staff interpreters each received numerous offers of employment. Before choosing his next job, Sig, by then the head of the team, tendered an offer of his own, to Piilani Ahuna, a Hawaiian-Chinese court reporter serving with the American delegation. "We met at the trial and got married in Paris," he says.

Sig and Piilani decided, like so many newlyweds before and since, to honeymoon in Hawaii. "We planned to visit a month or two, then return to Europe," he says. "But I was quite taken with the beauty of the people and the environment. My wife was willing to go back to Paris, but we decided to stay here a while, and I enrolled in graduate school."

Children followed, along with an offer to teach German and French at Honolulu’s prestigious Punahou School. "I hadn’t really planned a career in education," Sig says, "but after meeting the students, it came home very quickly that this was going to be my vocation."

Sig quickly realized that teaching a language requires more than lectures and drills. "Direct contact with the culture is essential," he says. He helped establish a local branch of Alliance Française, the international support group for French speakers. Next, he initiated student trips to Tahiti, Hawaii’s French-speaking Polynesian cousin to the south. "This created such goodwill, warmth and friendship," he says. It also led to a study program in Tahiti for Hawaiian language teachers, since Hawaiian and Tahitian are so closely linked.

Along the way, Sig helped establish a local branch of the Association for the UN. Trips to Japan and China followed, including an invitation for Punahou to be the first American secondary school to visit mainland China after it resumed diplomatic relations with the United States. In Japan, Sig says, influential figures like Keiichi Kiyoka of Keio University "helped open a lot of doors for us in the early days. Global thinking is his family’s tradition, since he’s the great-grandson of Yukichi Fukuzawa, Keio’s founder and one of the first advocates of Western-style education in Japan." Another key contributor was Sony chairman Akio Morita. Says Sig of these alliances: "Good personal relations, especially when dealing with Asia, count for everything."

Shin-gi-tai no ichi
"Mind, skill and body are one"

Still running marathons and brimming with energy, Sig retired in 1995, after helping establish the Wo International Center, Punahou’s institute for international forums as well as a high-profile sponsor of exchange programs, seminars and other global-oriented projects. "Now more than ever, our students are both local residents and world citizens," he says.

Since then, Sig has served as president of the board of the Pacific Basin Consortium, a gathering of private schools from more than twenty countries, and joined the East-West Center as an adjunct fellow. He also writes, lectures and, of course, travels. An article he wrote in 2000 for Independent School Quarterly offers insight into the motives for his seemingly inexhaustible sense of mission. Called "Schools for Peace," it describes an Israeli project that brings together Jewish and Arab students. Courses are taught jointly in Arabic and Hebrew to encourage mutual respect and understanding. "The objective," Sig writes, "is not to reach agreement but to see issues from the perspective of the other, to achieve greater awareness and understanding of the issues, and to lay the basis for rethinking assumptions and set positions."

Asked about this movement in light of recent Middle East events, he sighs, weighted down with all the bleak news coming out of that troubled area. "We hear so much about the cycle of violence," he says. "What we don’t hear about are the efforts to make some progress, however small, to bring about improvements."

While he is sometimes criticized for painting too rosy a picture of the world situation, Sig compares the search for peace to the labors of Sisyphus. A king in ancient Corinth, Sisyphus was condemned for eternity to roll a heavy stone up a steep hill only to have it roll back down. "The French writer Camus says that Sisyphus is smiling as he walks back down the hill," Sig says. "That’s because, in life, it’s the process that counts."

To find out more about cultural understanding through language, call Alliance Française of Hawaii: (808) 597-8066.