Better teaching -- the key to learning Asian languages

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Twenty-three students were enrolled in my Japanese, 101 class. A year later in Japanese 202 there were only four. Such a high rate of attrition is not unusual in Asian-language classes.

Enrollment for both beginning Chinese and Japanese classes nationwide is approximately 10,000 students each. Only 5 to 10 percent of that total is expected to obtain functional proficiency.

A report issued recently by the President's Commission on Foreign Language and Iternational Studies cites the following as some of the reasons for our "national inadequacy in foreign language skills."

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* Inadequate training of teachers.

* Lack of administrative and financial support for programs.

* Lack of imaginative teaching programs.

* Inattention to the less commonly taught languages such as Japanese, Chinese , and Russian.

Because it takes so much effort to learn Japanese and Chinese without good teaching and imaginative programs, many students find it an impossible taks and discontinue studies after the first or second term.

James Dew, reached by telephone at the Center for China Studies at the University of Michigan, explained that the biggest shock to most students is the "realization of the size of the undertaking."

Because Chinese and Japanese have no Latin roots, the vocabulary has no cognates with English and must be memorized from scratch. Students need to give much more time to memorization when learning an Asian language than a Western language.

In most universities, Japanese is taught in the Tokyo dialect, the standard one in Japanese.

Yet, the social hierarchy in Japan requires a speaker to know several politeness levels of speech. Verbs are inflected and generally placed at the end of a sentence, requiring students to alter their listening patterns to catch sentence meaning.

There is no such thing as word-for-word translation from Japanese to a Western language. Various linguistic elements, each of which exists separately and has a fixed meaning, are often joined to form one word. Translated alone, the words make no sense. The same is true in Chinese.

Mandarin Chinese, the official dialect of China, is the kind taught to American students. Chinese is a tonal language -- deffering tones distinguish words otherwise pronounced alike. Although Chinese grammar is simpler because it is not inflected (to indicate person, number, gender, tense, etc.,) students must train their ear to distinguish the four tones of the spoken language.

Chinese and Japanese have a complex writing system made up of characters or idiograms to represent words that must be memorized. To be considered literate, the student must know 1,850 Japanese Kanji and 2,000 Chinese characters, compared with 26 letters in the English alphabet.

Chinese is written entirely in characters, but Japanese has two phonetic syllabaries (alphabets), which makes memorization somewhat easier.

Cultural differences are often the biggest obstacle in learning Chinese and Japanese. Reached by phone at Middlebury College, John Berninghausen, a Chinese language professor, explained: "Language carries its cultural identity inside it ," and vice versa. "The two can't be separated."

For example, the Chinese extended family in a social development that dictates the terms used to define it. Chinese vocabulary includes several words for cousin, brother, etc., depending on the relative's relationship to the subject.

Eleanor Jordan of Cornell University told this reporter that "the structure of society is so different, the student has to be totally reoriented in attitude." And to emphasize the point, she added, "A student's mistakes are often a reflection of cultural habits."

Despite this challenge, Hilda T'oa, a Chinese-language teacher at the University of Michigan, said emphatically that people should not feel learning Chinese is difficult.

"It's a lot of work -- same as anything," she says, "but if the teaching is good and students are conscientious about assignments, they should show progress."

Professor T'ao says students can guage good or poor teaching by their progress after a few weeks. Many discouraged students withdraw from classes after one or two semesters, or complete years of study, with little or no competency due to poor teaching.

A good teacher "will demand a lot of the students, and not let them be lazy," prof. T'ao says. A native-speaking teacher should have a solid grammatical background in his or her own language as well s in English, she added.

Mr. Jordan, author of a widely used Japanese-language textbook, heads the Falcon program of year-round intensive Japanese-language studies at Cornell. The program emphasis is on sociolinguistics, the combining of social and cultural studies with language studies.

The Falcon program utilizes team teaching -- pairing Japanese and American instructors -- to provide native pronunciation, instruction in cultural mores, and grammatical explanations in the student's native tongues.

Audiovisual equipment, relatively new in language teaching, is also an important part of the program. Mrs. Jordan says it can be used in teaching classes as well as training teacher.

Mr. Jordan feels that too many language instructors stress translation and not conversation. "Drilling and translation alone are divorced from reality -- the emphasis must be on communication," she says. Avoid translation at all costs. Don't make the student come back to English."

Language study will be more exciting for students if they are able to speak and use what they have learned, Mrs. Jordan says, and there will be fewer dropouts when this happens. But she admitted that to do this, more innovative teaching is needed.

Prof. Berninghausen says the academic system is partly to blame for fautly language programs. Because prestige is stacked on th side of literary scholarship, most universities never adequately recognize or reward superior language teaching, he feels. He says any solution or process to improve language training would have to include a change in this system.

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