Better teaching -- the key to learning Asian languages
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
* 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."