Based on all the gloom and doom that's been coming out of Japan amid the so-called lost generation, you might find it hard to believe, but Japanese language learning in America is booming.
Although Japanese language enrollments declined approximately 5% between 1990 and 1998 after several decades of triple digit growth, it has begun to pick up again due in no small part to the growing popularity of manga and anime around the world. (Over 50% of Japanese language learners surveyed by the Japan Foundation as recently as 2009 cited wanting to learn how to read manga and anime as a key reason for studying Japanese.)
To get a grip on the Japanese language’s explosive growth in America, I spoke to Professor Mari Noda, a linguist and specialist in East Asian Language pedagogy at the Ohio State University. She pointed out that the Modern Language Association has reported a 10.3% increase in Japanese language enrollments in U.S. colleges and universities between 2006 and 2009, 66,605 in 2006 to 73,434 in 2009, and furthermore, that a Japan Foundation survey reported a 19.7% increase in Japanese learners in the same period. (In terms of popularity, Japanese is now sandwiched between Italian and Chinese, making up a little over 4% of the foreign language learner enrollment in the U.S.)
Recently, Eleanor Harz Jorden, a trailblazing pioneer of Japanese language education in the West, passed away, but her collaborator, Professor Noda has been in the process of bringing a classic (sometimes controversial) textbook up to date.
I remember my first crack at learning Japanese, how unhappy I was with the texts that were out then, and my delight at discovering MASTERING JAPANESE, complete with the ratty plastic case full of cassette tapes. The method with its hours of drilling and repeating did well for my limited attention span and gave me an incredible jumpstart.
That was almost 17 years ago ... and I was delighted to find out that the course in its current form -- JAPANESE: THE SPOKEN LANGUAGE -- is being given a new life complete with multi-media accompaniment just at a time when so-called “newer” textbooks that place more emphasis on reading and writing and preparation for the JLPT are hitting the market.
I asked Professor Noda, what makes us unique as Western learners of Japanese?
“In terms of challenges associated with Western learners, begin with the initial mind-set about 'studying' that many have. Studying is strongly associated with text, either printed on paper or appearing on a screen. So working with audio for 30 minutes instead of reading a chapter in a book is a new concept of learning for both teachers and learners. Then come the differences in cultural norms. Students who become linguistically highly skilled risk the chance of unintentionally offending or off-putting members of the target language community if they fail to learn the cultural assumptions associated with a particular linguistic usage.
"Behavioral culture is so common sense that few texts mention it. One of my advisers is working on account-giving (explanations associated with unexpected behavior). She finds that when a Japanese person misses something (e.g., an appointment), an account, as opposed to an excuse, he or she is expected to include an apology. This isn’t always the case in the U.S. In fact, including an apology and not including an excuse may be regarded as being weak or irresponsible. Many of our Chinese Ph.Ds are doing their research on the differences in 'common sense' between U.S. and Chinese cultures; for example, what does 'friendship' entail? What causes misunderstanding?”
I also asked her about Jorden’s unique contributions to the study of Japanese.
“Dr J, as a few of us affectionately called her, was the first linguist to write a pedagogical grammar of Japanese (Beginning Japanese Pts 1 & 2). She went to Yale to pursue classics and stumbled across Japanese. She once told me that she’d started working on Japanese 'temporarily' and was still at it!”
A key element of the JSL approach is that the spoken and written language are not taught together. In her book “Acts of Reading: exploring connections in pedagogy of Japanese,” Prof Noda argues that reading is a socially motivated activity which is carried out by speakers of a language.
“Jorden always used the spoken language as the primary target of linguistic analysis and never confused the written forms with the language. Step-by-step build up of structure, aligned from simple to more complex, was a trademark of 'Beginning Japanese.' She made some key changes in that alignment and descriptions in JSL, based on the linguistic research of graduate students she advised.”
Jorden, well ahead of her time, insisted that audio, and in her later years video media be used for presentation and study of the language.
“BJ was to be used with audio cassette tapes. JSL was to be used with audio and video tapes/discs at first, and now with CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, and Internet media. While working on JSL in the early '80s, I remember her saying “It took others 20 years to catch up with [requiring] the audio tapes. Let’s see how long it’d take them to catch up with the video.” Of course, technology was developing at a much more rapid pace then, so it didn’t take very long. But to require audio cassettes in the early '60s was certainly avant-garde. She was unafraid of using new media, so long as it made pedagogical sense. I often wonder what new ideas she would come up with, if she were with us to witness the outburst of new media technology.”
Ironically, many of us who live in Japan have had the experience of teaching English to Japanese students who can read and write and know lot’s of grammar, but can’t carry on a simple conversation. As foreigners striving to learn thousands of kanji prior to acquiring rudimentary communication skills the debate can begin: are we too heading down the same slippery slope?© Japan Today