A few days ago I had an interesting conversation at work with a Japanese friend of mine that gave me an idea for this month’s column. The conversation started like any other, the usual salutations and polite inquiries followed by some humming and hawing about how life was treating us. Of course, I tried to carry out the discourse in Japanese while my Japanese friend spoke in English. This in itself is a subject worth pursuing in the future and perhaps might be titled “The Struggle to Use the Japanese Language With Japanese” or maybe “Why Am I Studying Japanese Anyway?”. Indeed, when nearly every Japanese person you meet almost refuses to speak to you in Japanese you are forced to question the prudence of studying the language at all. However, in the interest of keeping this month’s column somewhat upbeat, I will develop this topic later.
So then, as well as I can remember the conversation went as follows:
“Konnichiwa! Teiko-san genki desu ka?”
“Hi Mike! Yes I am good! How are you?”
“Un… genki desu. Saikin nani o shite imashita ka.”
“Oh not much… I have been working so much!”
“Honto? Eigo no benkyou wa dou desu ka?”
“Hmm… It’s so difficult!”
“Sou desu ne… Demo ganbatte ne!”
“Thank you… So how is your Japanese?”
“Muzukashii desu. Boku no atarashii nihongo no kurasu de isshukan ni
tabun 40 no kanji o oboenakereba narimasen!”
“Wow… Probably I donユt even know some of them… Kanji are very<
difficult but I think English is harder..."
"Eh? Uso! Hora.... Eigo o benkyou suru toki romaji o shittara zenbu
yomeru deshyou? Demo Nihongo o yomu tame ni nanzen no kanji o
oboenakereba narimasen yo. Dakara, eigo o benkyou suru koto no hou ga
nihongo o benkyou suru koto yori kantan desu yo!"
"Hmm..." she replied, perhaps won over by my infallible logic.
"Hora! Canada de dono gurai eigo o benkyou shiteimashita ka?"
Her emphatic answer, "Six months!"
"Eh... Rokkagetsu dake? Eh! Rokkagetsu shika benkyou shinaide to pera
pera ni narenai to monku o itte irun ka? Rokkagetsu de daremo donna kuni
no kotoba demo pera pera ni narenai desu yo! Pera pera ni naru koto wa
sugoku muzukashi desu! Nan nen kan kakarimasu yo! Rokkagetsu no benkoyu
wa zettai tarinai desu!"
"But English is so difficult! I can't do it!" she muttered and started/ to turn away.
At that point I realized that I had hit upon a sore point. For many Japanese students who come to Canada, learning English can be very stressful and maybe I had taunted her a little too much... After all, there are few Japanese people who can afford to spend the many years in an English speaking country that it will take to become fluent, and yet, for nearly all of those who do come, becoming fluent rationalizes the huge step they take by exiting the Japanese system, be it educational, vocational or otherwise. The struggle to become fluent, and the realization that it may not be possible in the time frame they have allotted themselves can be extremely damaging to their confidence, and can often lead to a general disillusionment with their foreign experience. Later I will give a few pointers that might help a person, Japanese or otherwise, with their language learning experience. Before that however, I would like to briefly discuss some strong feelings I have about the English language educational system in Japan. Although I spent just one year working as a private language teacher in Japan, I got a fairly good view of the system through my students and the Jyuku system.
First of all, most Japanese study English for several years during junior and senior high school where the finer points of grammar are stressed. This is quite similar to the experience of a Canadian student who begins a mandatory study of the French language in the late elementary years. However, like the Canadian student who after 6 years of studying French would be lucky if he could do anything more than introduce himself or ask the time, upon exiting the Japanese educational system the students are similarly limited. Their lack of conversational ability has nothing to do with English being a particularly difficult language to learn, and everything to do with the fact that they rarely have the chance to use it in any practical situations in Japan.
The educational system, focusing almost entirely on the written word, leaves them very unprepared to use English in the real world. Isnユt the realF world what really counts though? Isn't studying something for several years and not being able to use it a tragedy? More than this, isn't it sadder for the fact that with only minimal modification to the educational system Japanese students could easily come away being for all intents and purposes, fluent. All that would have to be done would be to start students off in elementary school listening and speaking English, even if were only for a half hour per day. If this were continued throughout their school years, not only would they be able to use English in practical situations, the difficult grammar which they are made to master in order to enter universities would seem much easier. It is common sense that a student who can see the benefit of being able to use his language ability will progress further than he would if he were just studying to pass a test.
At present, the colossal waste of time and money is atrocious. The most surprising thing however is just how different the English language educational system is compared to Japan's overall reputation for both efficiency and sensibility. One might argue though that Japan achieved the success it did with such an English educational system and thus there is nothing inherently wrong with it. However, in times where minute differences in efficiency levels, be it between competing firms or nations themselves, are enough to decide which will be prosperous and which will fail to move forward, isn't a change in the way the Japanese learn English a must?
The only real losers, if the way English is taught in Japan changes, would be the private English language schools who extract exorbitant sums for their services. Often these are 4000-5000 yen per hour but can reach as high as 10000 yen per hour. These fees are paid by Japanese companies who require their employees to use English to do business overseas, not only in America but all over the world. The drain on companies is staggering; just think of the efficiency gains if they never had to send another employee to learn English again! Of course, even if the educational system were changed tomorrow, the improvement to overall English language ability in Japan might take a generation until it became to pay benefit to industry, but what a benefit it would be! Anyway, my personal views on Japan's English language system aside, what I really would like to provide this month are ten simple points that might help or encourage anyone who is trying to learn a language. While I am no expert and my suggestions may not be surprising, it can't hurt to look them over.
1. Use it or lose it. Once you reach a certain level if you don't keep it up by using it regularly, all that time you put in will have been wasted. Often when students spend a year studying English in Canada they become worried, and rightly so, that once they return to Japan their language ability will start to decline. In this case, they have to become creative and use every opportunity they can to keep it up. In an extreme case, when I spoke very simple English all day during the lessons I taught, I found that my ability to converse with my Canadian friends on the telephone became impaired. At times I had to struggle to keep up with the pace of the conversation, as I was so used to speaking in slow, basic, "correct" English.
2. Get used to hearing the language you are studying. Listen to the radio, watch television, and tape record your language lessons to review them later. Eves dropping on people who are speaking the language you are trying to learn might also be a good idea!
3. Don't be embarrassed about making mistakes! Making mistakes is the best way to improve yourself. I have lost count of the times I have attempted a sentence in Japanese only to have a Japanese person stare confusedly back at me as if I were speaking Swahili. Sure it is embarrassing but the best thing about when this happens is that you are unlikely to make the same mistake twice!
4. Find someone who is willing to correct your mistakes. Many people don't like to correct another persons mistakes because they feel that it is rude, but I feel that it is worse to let a friend continue to make the same mistake over and over.
5. Improve your vocabulary! Flash cards, sticky-notes on your walls, or even reading the dictionary from beginning to end is useful. Often times it is not a personユs lack of grammar that limits him, but his lack ofO simple vocabulary.
6. Don't get discouraged! If you do, you will eventually give up. Understand that learning a language is something that will take you your whole life, so try to enjoy it.
7. Set goals and measure your progress by taking tests. For Japanese people these would include TOEFL and TOEIC.
8. Experience the culture of your language! Visiting or even living in the country that your language comes from gives you an invaluable connection to the culture and attitudes of the people which are often closely linked to the language itself.
9. Don't throw your money away! You can't expect that just because you give a lot of money to a language school that you will improve. You have to make the best of the time you are taking lessons and study very hard. They will make you believe that you are getting better even if you are getting worse, that's their job. Also, the cost and reputation of a school has very little to do with how much you will improve; your effort has everything to do with it! Study, study, study!
10. Challenge yourself! Never think something is too difficult! Your language ability is like your body; the more you exercise it, the heavier weights you lift, the stronger it will get! Ganbatte!NT
Copyright @ Michal Richter. All rights reserved.