Saturday, March 13, 2010

Traditional approaches to Japanese language learning are changing..

When Nagiko Umino started out as a Japanese language teacher, she didn’t realize how much she would end up learning from her foreign students. Last year, she released Nihonjin no Shiranai Nihongo (“Japanese the Japanese Don’t Know”), a collection of manga-style stories based on her years of experience. The book was a surprise hit, topping the sales charts for 2009, and a second volume has just been released.

“Nihonjin no Shiranai Nihongo” has caused quite a stir. How does that make you feel?

First, I’m happy that more people have become aware of Japanese teaching as a profession. I’ve also gotten lots of comments from readers saying that they were inspired to study more about Japan and Japanese, so I’m glad that I could be the cause of that interest.

What are some other surprising things that your students have said or done?

Once, when we went on a field trip to the mountains, one of my students caught a turtle by the river and said to me, “I’m going to take it home and eat it.” On another trip to a lake, one of the female students went swimming. Even though it was only May, she had brought along a swimsuit and even a swimming cap (and of course, we’d warned the students beforehand not to swim).

You teach foreign students from many different countries. Have you noticed certain strengths and weaknesses depending on their native languages?

Many of my Chinese students have trouble using particles like “ka,” “wo” and “he.” But in the advanced levels, where the text involves lots of kanji, they are able to understand more easily. Korean students seem to have problems with pronunciation (for example, “tsu” becomes “chu”). But the Korean rules about formal keigo speech are very similar to Japan, so they understand that quickly and use it correctly.

With European and American students, kanji of course is a big hurdle. But students who memorize kanji because they think it’s interesting do advance quickly. Unlike students from Asian countries, when Western students are here, Japanese people won’t always speak to them in Japanese. Because of this, many of them seem to have trouble increasing their conversation skills.

Do you think Japanese people’s language ability has gotten worse compared to the past?

I wouldn’t say it’s gotten “worse,” but I certainly think that people use less polite speech (myself included). If you watch movies from 40-50 years ago, there are many scenes where even parents and children speak to each other using very polite expressions. They talk more slowly, and it feels like they use a more varied vocabulary than we do now. Compared to back then, I think that now we have many more newly created words, and the tempo of our speech has increased, but the words lack the same flavor and resonance. Whether that’s “worse” or not, I don’t know…

Thinking about how foreigners are taught Japanese, versus how it is taught to Japanese people, do you think that there are problems or methods that should be changed in the current Japanese language education system?

With both Japanese and foreign students, I think the teaching methods need to be tailored to suit the goals of each student and their reasons for studying Japanese. Foreign students tend to come from an environment where they can choose different study methods based on their goals, but Japanese students—especially in elementary and junior high schools—aren’t really learning “Japanese.” It’s extremely important to learn your native language properly; I think that’s a very fundamental thing, and I think some measures need to be taken at the national level.

What do you think about the recent revisions to the Japanese Language Proficiency Test?

From a teaching perspective, the changes to the test will make things tougher, but I think it’s a good thing for the students. They are going to be judged from a different perspective, so their study tools will have to change as well. Until now, memorization has been the main focus, but with the revisions, I think that’s going to change.

What do you think is the most important thing for foreign students learning Japanese?

Well, I think this holds true for anyone learning a foreign language, but… Language is something that can never be separated from the culture of that area. If you want to become more fluent, it’s important to work hard at understanding Japan’s culture and customs, too. If you can think “that’s different,” or “that’s interesting,” then studying will probably come a little more easily.

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (

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