Demand for Japanese language instruction in U.S. skyrocketing


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?

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Compared to other languages, Japanese, for some reason, seems to have "cool" element to it that the others lack.

2 ( +6 / -4 )

As a matter of fact, a much larger number of HS and university students were studying Japanese twenty years ago than today. While there might be a slight uptick in the numbers because of otaku pursuing the language, many secondary schools have dropped Japanese in favor of Chinese. Japan is no longer seen as having any economic significance compared to the Middle Kingdom and this has always been the primary reason most people studied either language in the U.S.

No offence to Professor Noda, but Ohio State University is hardly the first school that comes to mind in the U.S. for the study of Japan. Your column would have been better served if you'd spoken to someone at Harvard, Columbia, Stanford or the University of Washington.

-3 ( +3 / -6 )

Eddie, your closing paragraph seems to indicate that you've missed one of the main points of Jorden's and Noda's unique pedagogy: memorizing "thousands of kanji" is actually counterproductive to verbal fluency.

-4 ( +2 / -6 )

@jeffrey I think you need to read a bit more about Mari Noda and OSU. She's the co-author of the text that is used at all the universities you just mentioned. She is a protege of Jorden and a linguist from Cornell. Basically, she's one of the top Japanese linguistics in that country. OSU's Japanese language program is one of the largest Japanese language programs in the US. They're also famous for their teacher training programs.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

@ Johnnygogogo

I know very well who Noda-sensei is. She was considered the "dean" of Japanese instructors in the U.S. when I was a university student,35-years ago.

OSU is no longer among the elite Nihongo programs in the U.S. and Jorden was left behind in terms of pedagogy years ago. Her method or Romanization was annoying beyond belief.

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

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.

Undergraduate students in the US (2006) = 15,184,000.

Undergraduate students in the US (2009) = 17,565,000. (an increase of 15.68%)


The popularity of Japanese Language Classes seems to be decreasing slightly based on Modern Language Association's numbers, while gaining slightly based on the Japan Foundation's numbers.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Her book isn't supposed to be read, so the romaji argument is inapplicable. Why the publisher releases the book without the DVD is beyond me.

@mark_macracken Faulty logic. Although the number of language learners may have dropped the portion studying Asian Languages, Japanese and Chinese in particular are rising.

My own personal opinion: You need to learn hiragana and katakana as soon as possible no matter what. Its also useful for learning the sound system, but I like Jorden's method. I found it far more focused than Minna Nihongo.

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I don't see the fault with the logic. Is comparing the change in the number of Japanese language students to the change in the number of total undergraduate students a poor basis for determining popularity?

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Of the 73,434 learning Japanese, I wonder what percentage might want to come and learn it in Japan. I attempt and usually fail to organise student exchanges. 73,434 students may sound like a lot but almost all Japanese students, of which there were 2.8 million in 2006, study English, and usually to a far higher (?!) level, so there are 40 students of English Japan to every one student of Japanese in America. The colleges that are successful in attracting students are either the very best, or those that do not attempt to stick purely to language student exchange but offer courses in English in Japan, like Jouchi and APU.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

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?

Do we actually strive to learn thousands of kanji before acquiring rudimentry communication skills though? I might be wrong because I never studied Japanese in university, just a year by myself before I came here and then within Japan ever since.

I certainly didnt study any kanji before acquiring communication skills othert than a few bits here and there out of interest (like my name!), and I studied hiragana and katakana in the beginning to help with pronounciation and basic reading.

But I think people study a language for different reasons and this, plus their preferred "style" of learning, largely dictates how they approach it. Someone living in the US with a big obsession weith manga but no intention of coming to Japan, for example, wouldnt need basic communication skills. Someone living here would need to prioritise it over anything else.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Yeah great Eddie. Must be true. More foreigners are learning Japanese, not true. Even in America that is just one country. he Japan oundation is totally biased.

Less people are intereseted in Japan worldiwde and less are learning the language. As the Americans say, period.

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

@steve@cpfc You seem hostile that someone is writing about Japan with a positive slant. Seems like you have personal issues. I'll take that back if you can show me statistics to prove your point that "Less people are interest in Japan worldwide and less are learning the language." Please show us your superior statistics.

The Modern Language Association is hardly biased towards Japan. Are they part of the "Japanophile conspiracy" too?

@timtak I am told that a great deal of the students studying Japanese in America are Korean and Chinese... that is somewhat strange, since they choose to fly to America rather than swimming across the ocean. Supposedly Korean learners make up the largest portion of Japanese learners in the US.

@Mark_McCracken I'm sorry for a type-o in my reply above. I meant to say that although the numbers of language learners are increasing at a far faster rate and Japan is not keeping up with the curb does not mean that relatively speaking its shrinking. It is a fact though that Chinese is expected to bypass Japanese as the number of learners are growing at a faster rate. Also, the rate of growth of Arabic, Biblical Hebrew and ASL are much higher than Japanese, so to that extent in the long term you have a point.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

skyrocketing? Ger REAL, thats an a exaggeration. its Mandarin that is in demand. DON'T Get me wong, I LOVE Japanese i just wanna share my thoughts. way TOO Many people study japanese for corny/ Dumb reasons manga & anime are a couple of them. REMEMBER most REAL JP- Fans DO NOT want it to become popular in America. YES im an American & LOVE my country, but they do Always GO Overboard on popular songs & things, & would just Ruin it. Believe ME!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I think it's ludicrous to argue that people should be placing less emphasis on kanji and reading. Japanese and English are fundamentally different languages. It's counter-intuitive to spend all your time reading English without speaking it, but learning Japanese without studying kanji is like learning how to swim without getting wet - you can go through the motions but there's no point because you're missing out on the mechanics. When you can recognize, read and understand kanji, it facilitates your ability to speak the language because you make a subconscious connection between the kanji and the words being spoken.

I have met countless Japanese learners who follow dozens of different learning philosophies, and I have never met a single person who was able to successfully learn and implement Japanese without spending a significant amount of time - most of their time, in fact - learning kanji and reading.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

The one question that immediately came to my mind is why is Japanese so popular now? I have a hunch as to why but do wish the author had delved into it.

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Data from 2009 are not particularly revealing at this point. What are enrolments in introductory Japanese in the U.S. in the autumn of 2011 as compared to the autumn of 2010? I would imagine a significant drop that could be revealed by perhaps Tuesday with emails to 20 U.S. universities. Whether that will have a lasting effect or not depends on whether the Japanese government is willing to address the radiation problem head on or continue to ignore it. Almost nobody who selects to learn a foreign language intends merely to view the culture from afar. They want to go there, and that motivation has been seriously harmed by the nuclear disaster. What is going on in South and East Asia in terms of Japanese language study? That is an area where growth potential existed prior to March, particularly among ethnic Chinese who already get years of English study in school and have (or is it now "had"?) cultural or professional interests in Japan.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@kabukilover Interest in Manga and Anime seem to be cited in the article... What's your call? Considering that undergrad students are going to be late teens and early 20's I'd imagine that would explain it.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

johnnygogogo; Facts are less epople worldwide are interested in Japan, the language, the place and the culture. Korea and China have taken the interest of many who like this part of the world. In Europe many Japanes elanguage depts have closed due to lack of demand. hese is less interest in Japan year on year. I have no objection to positives stories when realistic. I am in no way a Japan "basher" which i think is the favoured word of some.

-5 ( +1 / -6 )

@steve@cpfc rrrrright... and the link to the statistics to back up what you're saying...??? Can you give me a link to back up any of your assertions... or are these "facts" privy to you and you alone?

Annual Total Visitors to Japan 2003: 5,211,725 2004: 6,137,905 2005: 6,727,926 2006: 7,334,077 2007: 8,346,969 2008: 8,350,835 2009: 6,789,658 2010: 8,611,175 (source *JNTO)

Of course, currently down in wake of 3/11 disaster.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

johnnygogogo; Visitors to Tokyo!! rrrrright, this bears no relation to the article or my post. It seems i know a lot more about the true fgacts than your good self. Perhaps you should see where these visitors come from, the increase is from Asia, newly wealthy Chinese and Koreans mostly, not Japanese learners. Visitors from the West are in decline as more travel to Korea and China instead, FACT!!

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

@steve@CPFC ...o.k. I'm still waiting for you to send me a link to some statistics to back up assertion. Where is it?

3 ( +4 / -1 )

@Human Target:

When you can recognize, read and understand kanji, it facilitates your ability to speak the language because you make a subconscious connection between the kanji and the words being spoken.

My decades-long experience learning to become proficient at Japanese causes me to second your statement. I set out many years ago believing that mastering kanji could be set aside, but now believe that it has to be put right up front and given a lot of focus. No single thing advances access to the language more than that.

Also, I have found that kanji is where a great deal of the beauty and pleasure of the language reveals itself -- which only fosters more study and practice.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

johnnygogogo; I do no need to give you links, these facts are common knowledge to those who know about Japan like myslef. I only post on topics i know about. I stand by all my posts on this matter as they are correct as many previous news stories on this site prove.

-6 ( +2 / -8 )

I am neither a Japanophile or against Japan just living in the real world. There is less inmterest in Japan worldwide. Incresed tourism from neighbouring countries does not mean more people are learning Japanese. Why don't you show a link of where tourists come from and prove my point for me as i am correct.

-6 ( +2 / -8 )

steve@cpfc o.k. you're an expert on Japan, we all believe you. Whatever you say is true... no need to provide links or citations to back up your facts... roger, Buddy... Got your point...

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Ganbate, Amerikajins! Chibi Maruko Chan mireba! You'll learn how to say "Hey, baby tachi"!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

johnnygogogo; Care to show where i am wong? Please do not address me as buddy, Sir is the correct title.

-5 ( +3 / -8 )

The only place where tourism to Japan is skyrocketing from is Asia;

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Some people do study the Japanese language primarily because of a strong interest in Japanese manga, anime or pop culture. But in order to expand global reaches, be it for business, sheer interest or pure pleasure especially in the current internet era more people seem to be working toward not only learning a language like Japanese but in perfecting their language skills improving their proficiency and taking for example the Japanese language proficiency test. Therefore the Japanese language is one of the most popular languages among language learners and Japan is also the only Asian country in the powerful economic G8 forum of the richest countries in the world.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

One does not have to be able to read or write in order to speak a language. Just look at all of the illiterate people in England that cannot read and write, but they can speak and in most cases that is all that is necessary.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Gooddog; England is not relevent to this article. I have proved the Japanophiles wrong and they dissapear from thediscussion with their tails between their legs and as ever without an admission that they were wrong. I care not whether Japanese languge is more or less popular, but worldwide Japan and the language is losing its relevence. I live in Japan and do not have an agenda re this matter.

-3 ( +4 / -6 )

Eddie, I have never met anybody who learned thousands - or even hundreds or tens for that matter - of Kanji prior to basic communication skills. But what I found is that for me personally without learning Kanji I cannot make any real progress. Maybe because I'm fundamentally used to visual learning and I cannot remember things which I have only heard. But beyond that I have also made the experience that I could not fully understand and hence use certain expressions until I finally learned the Kanji behind. In that sense, I found my textbooks and teachers, who wanted to keep things simple more confusing than helping.

As others have said, the headline is a bit of an exaggeration. Otherwise interesting article.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@gonemad I was with this one fellow who was able to translate documents and stuff, but I had to translate for him when he wanted to talk to the boss. I have the opposite problem. I guess its all about balance.

I'm assuming the headline is referring to 1975 vs. the present and JLPT enrollments. Otherwise I'd say, "is growing modestly". Chinese is supposed to pass it, but still, when I was a kid the idea of Chinese or Japanese being up there with the European languages was unimaginable.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I'd love to speak Japanese, but in my country you'll hardly find someone or somewhere who can teach you. Still i'm trying to do it via internet trough a site named:

Nihongo o Narau:

I've only started this year and, of course, i still can't say much other then telling my name and losen words.

Can anyone, please, tell me if this site is of any good?

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I´ve become interested in the language because of my work, in case you wonder.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Tugamen...Do you want to read or speak? Both are very different games. If you want a good understanding of kanji, try getting Heisegs Remembering the Kanji. Brilliant series and the man is a genius.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

By the way, although a bad situation, the tsunami and massive earthquake has opened up more interest in Japan. It is constantly in the news. Small places such as ENgland and Greece come to pass but Japan is right up there as well as China. I do believe China will falter, but for now a huge player at a minor level. But opportunistic if you get down Mandarin if you are young and eager to make some fast cash,

0 ( +2 / -2 )

@ JapanGal - first i'd like to learn how to speak (at least the basic) then try to read it.

No my interest in Japan comes from way back, but only after the net became more wide and global (and the net providers in my country decided to put up decent services) i could again resume my "investigation" on Japan. Them i've started working for a company (around 2001) that represents a japanese brand and i think knowing something about it could' t hurt.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

tugamen: You need people around you that speak it and that would really help. If you want to have fun reading try Heisig "Remembering the Kanji" series.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

@JapanGal - thank you for the advice, know were i can find it?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

No idea why Americans now would be spending time with Japanese, unless they are these so called otakus that think they live inside of a Japanese manga world?? Not too sure about these demented folk, but I do know the ones who want $$$ are not wasting their time with Japanese, now Mainland China is the big $$$$ so picking up Mandarin where the $$$ is supposed to be. Would I myself like to learn Chinese, yes and no, in Hong Kong I could only understand when the locals where saying that I was a gwaylou, or gaijin in Cantonese, and this word I picked up because my first girlfriend here in Japan was not Japanese but from Hong Kong and evertime she got angry with me, she started GWAYLAU! GWAYLAU! So, so much for enjoying that language.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Great post Elbuda.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

LOL @ Steve, so if you say something, then it's a fact, you don't neet to prove it ? that's great, BUDDY

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Mr Suzuki; I suggest you read the link i provided that proved my point re foreigners visiing Jaapan by nationality. If you can dispute or disprove my link and posts please do...LOL....

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Tugamen, start here. Brilliant book(s). Follow in order and do not skip around.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Whats everyone goin on with mandrine about. Why would u need to learn chinese? Do u wanna work in china? English teachers get way less than 100,000k yen a month. Do u wanna open a business there? U hire a chinese american/canadian. Unless ur a small business owner tjat wants to deal directly with local uneducated chinese people, then study chinese!! Or of course, as a hobby. English is the world´s language for both business and travel. Thats what everyone is studying and will always study. Period!

0 ( +1 / -1 )


and this word I picked up because my first girlfriend here in Japan was not Japanese but from Hong Kong and evertime she got angry with me, she started GWAYLAU! GWAYLAU! So, so much for enjoying that language.

I'm not surprised she got angry with you, seeing that you've never got a good word to say about the Chinese.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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