Problems for learners in JapanIn the present article I will offer an opinion about the origins of the difficulties that japanese
learners face while studying English. The potential range of the topic is so broad that would require hundreds of pages to be discussed exhaustively. I will therefore concentrate my attention on three major issue: the impact of modern history on the japanese
psychology, the introduction of English words in modern japanese
and, finally, some characteristics of the japanese
1. The language of the victors
Japan is a fascinating country, home to one of the most beautiful cultures ever appeared on the planet. The evolution of the japanese
civilization covers more than three thousand years and is marked by periods of isolationism alternated by moments of complete opening to foreign influences. In the early stage of its development, Japan embarked on a massive modernization program with the help of chinese
architects, missionaries, artists and artisans who had migrated from the continent to the japanese
archipelago. Their expertise and the japanese
eagerness to learn and longing for perfection resulted in the birth of the magnificent Nara Culture (710-784). The same thing happened at the end of the Edo period (1603-1868), when the new government formed by the young men who had led the Meiji Renovation started an even more radical modernization: selected japanese students
were sent abroad (among those many future famous japanese
literates such as Natsume S?seki and Mori ?gai) while foreign experts were hired to reform the Law, the Economy, the Army etc. This program, which had started to decline as the japanese
returned to fill the positions previously held by the foreign experts, came to an end after the japanese
politics moved vigorously towards militarization in the second decade of the XIX Century.
As Prof. Dower states in his excellent War Without Mercy, the War in the Pacific was characterized on both sides by an unprecedented use of propaganda. Many of the stereotypes concerning the japanese
and the African Americans have roots in the propaganda leaflets, magazines and broadcasts with which the opposing forces tried to physically and psychologically demonize each other. For example, the japanese
were frequently depicted as short, yellow monkey-like men with bad teeth and eyesight, therefore always wearing glasses. They were also canny, clever, prone to betrayal and, after the start of the Tokubetsu k?gekitai ????? activities in 1944, always ready kill themselves. The American stereotype, exemplified by the image of the Black Marine, was that of a powerfully muscled, bloodthirsty man who loathed all Asians and coveted nothing but carnage and mayhem.
This is not the place to discuss why the war began. The only significant data for this article is that Japan suffered defeat and was invaded for the first time in History. Losing the war had an enormous impact on the japanese
mind and affected the japanese
people deeply. Not six months ago the vice-principal of an Elementary school in northern Japan, where I was working as an English teacher, confided me that even though sixty years have passed, the japanese
have yet to recover from the loss of confidence that the defeat provoked.
generally agree that English is difficult and that something makes it inherently hard for the japanese
to study. While this is far from true, it is not unreasonable to presume that at least a portion of the insecurity that many japanese
feel towards the English language comes from the fact that the invading troops from America spoke that language. The victory of America over Japan made English the language of the victors and, implicitly, psychologically out of the reach of the defeated.
2. Words from the Outside
Immediately after losing the war, the japanese
began a third, intense modernization of their customs. The japanese
language was instantly flooded by gairaigo ???, or ?foreign words?. That was acceptable, even understandable, for words like konpy?t? (computer), j?pu (jeep), fuoku (fork), but words such as howaito (white), pinku (pink) , bur? (blue) are completely redundant, since the japanese
language has indigenous and better sounding equivalents: shiro ?, momoiro??, ao? respectively.
Nobel Prize for Literature Kawabata Yasunari, in his Koto ?? (The Old Capital), a delicate novel set in Ky?to immediately after the end of the War, has one of the main characters, the owner of a kimono shop, complain about the use of English names for colours instead of the traditional japanese
alternatives. English, though, sounds ?cool?. Its ?coolness? is capable of interesting young people and procures business. Furthermore, English words can be easily written with the syllabic katakana system, while the japanese
words require the infinitely more elegant, but rather complex, chinese
The amount of foreign vocabulary currently in use in modern japanese
is so huge that special dictionaries have been compiled to list it, but to the learners of English this is more an obstacle than an aid. People who have learnt as children that the colour pink can be called pinku, or that a bag is called baggu, will find it difficult to rectify their pronunciation, because the mistake has become ingrained. Therefore, using English words with japanese
pronunciation, rather than helping japanese
learners, does them a conspicuous disservice.
3. The japanese
is an isolated language. It has some affinities with Turk and korean
but, just like the Euskera language of the Basque Country, spain
, scholars have yet to find indisputable proofs of its affiliation to other languages. It differs from English in many ways: orders of fundamental constituents, grammar, phonology, etc.
The standard order of the japanese
sentence is as follows: Subject, Object, and Verb. japanese
is, therefore, classified as an SOV language. English, instead, is a SVO language, since its standard sentence order is Subject, Verb, and Object. The English say, for example, I go to school, while the japanese
say watashi ha gakk? he iku ??????? (*I to school go). The japanese
learners often construct sentences arranging English words in the japanese
Another remarkable trait of the japanese
language is that it lacks any difference between singular and plural, countable and uncountable. Therefore, japanese
has no articles, and the japanese
learners strive to grasp the rule that makes a cup acceptable and *a water unacceptable.
Phonologically, the biggest problem for a japanese
learner comes from the abundance of English words containing combinations of, or ending by, a consonant other than [n]. The japanese
is strictly syllabic: the only possible single sounds are the five vowels [a], [i],[u],[e],[o] and the consonant [n]. This is true for both the spoken and the written japanese
. The two writing systems hiragana and katakana , created to represent the sounds of the japanese
language, are syllabic, therefore able to reproduce only the syllables of the japanese
language. Words from other languages are written, and pronounced, with the closest approximation to the original allowed by the kana writing system. For example, the final [t] in rocket would be approximated to [to], with the word being written ???? and pronounced roketto. The final [k] in back would be approximated to [ku], with the word being written ???and pronounced bakku.
There is also a series of sounds which are featured in English but absent in japanese
, such as [?] from thing and [?] from measure. While producing sounds unfamiliar to one?s mother tongue poses some difficulty to adult students
, it?s been demonstrated that young children are capable of picking up a second language with perfect pronunciation and intonation.
Ministry of Education has supporting a series of ?ALT programs? in High and Junior High schools and, in more recent times, in Elementary Schools all over the country, in an attempt to boost the national level of English education. ALT programs are useful, but their spurious and inconsistent nature ends up creating what we may call an ?English divide?. students
exposed to good programs led by good teachers gain confidence and knowledge, while others moves through CD players, course books and entrance examinations wondering why they have to study that difficult and uninteresting language. I am confident that the above-mentioned problems (psychology, abuse of ?japanized? English words, diversity of japanese
and English) will eventually be solved, but it?s unlikely that Japan will manage to overcome the ?English is difficult? myth without a serious school reform and a standardized, high-quality English education program
Hiragana and katakana are two sets of 48 symbols representing the syllables of the japanese
language. They were derived from chinese
characters of identical sound sometime during the VIII Century a.D. The three of them are indispensable to read and write japanese
characters, of kanji ??, are used to write ?full? words (nouns, verbs, adjectives?). Hiragana is used for ?empty? words, prepositions, suffixes, verbs terminations etc. Katakana is used to write words of foreign origin.