Chapter 7: English and the global perspective
Learning Japanese can be a struggle. From having to learn and memorize three different writing systems, to completely changing how you think about language, it makes perfect sense for why Japanese is one of the hardest languages to learn. Despite all that however I decided to try and take on the task of teaching it to myself still to no avail. My struggles related to learning Japanese can be linked back to my methods of practice and the bad habits that followed. In this paper I will elaborate on how Japanese is taught in the classroom as well as to show several ways that students have been able to be the most engaged and excited to learn the language. Along with that I will also talk about kanji which is one of the most daunting things about learning the language and some ways to try and combat the task. I will be doing this by answering the following research questions: What is the importance of proper communication within the Japanese learning environment as a student and a teacher as well as what methods can be used to get passed the most challenging hurdle in learning Japanese, Kanji.
To start breaking this down, learning Japanese or any language has its peaks and valleys or the best most engaging parts and the worst or least engaging parts within the classroom setting. Understanding what these are can really help shape the classroom and improve the learning experience. Keeping students engaged in the class means that they will be thrilled to continue the studies which will lead to them keeping and holding on to the information. This leads to the question of “what are these moments of engagement and how can I identify them and use them to my advantage to learn Japanese?”
Well Hiroshi Matsumoto, who is an associate Professor of Japanese Language and Culture at the Soka University of America, conducted an experiment to find out just what these as he calls “Peak Learning experiences” are. He had a group of Americans learning Japanese fill out a survey in which they wrote what part of the class was most memorable and caused the most enjoyment. The number one moment for the most engagement within the class was when students were able to branch out and live as well as communicate with a Japanese host family. When I read this, it sparked a big interest in taking an actual Japanese class, one where I might be able to have this experience as well, rather than just trying to learn it by myself. Being able to use the language outside of the classroom is a particularly effective way to stay engaged and to allow the information to be held onto way after the class has passed. Continuing in the number two spot was being able to communicate with a native speaker of Japanese. Which again is a terrific way to learn as they are able to give feedback right there and then about how the student is doing. The ability to communicate with a native speaker is one of the main reasons I have struggled to learn Japanese myself as I am not able to use the language in any outside situations. The third most engaging reason is the realization of improvement from being able to understand increasingly of the speech. This can be a very motivating factor especially because of how complex the language is to learn. This motivation can cause a boost in engagement and if the students continue to realize their improvement which will increase their drive to want to learn more. The topic of motivation has been studied by countless phycologists in their attempt to learn more about the brain, but the basic gist of it is that students work towards goals to then receive a reward of some kind (Matsumoto 3). This in turn allows for growth and improvement within that said topic however, there are also negative aspects which can also affect the students learning experience in negative ways.
These are referred to in Matsumoto’s study as “‘Negative’ Peak Learning Experiences” which are the lowest points of learning in the classroom or the moments the students find most annoying or just want to forget all together. The number one for this is that students usually have a tough time realizing when they are making any sort of progress. This could be caused by the teacher moving on to new topics too fast or because the students expected to be able to learn it faster than they actually are (Matsumoto 7). This causes a lack of motivation which is not good for engagement. This has been a hurtle for me in my studies because I do not put enough time into each study session, and I have found that I am progressing at a slower pace than I want to be. The second one that causes the most struggle is having to learn and memorize kanji which is the largest most extensive writing system used in Japanese. It is comprised of well over 50,000 different symbols however a learner only must know about 2,000 of those to be able to read fluently. This can cause a major lack of motivation just from the sheer number of symbols that need memorized. The third most negative part of some classes according to the survey is the fact that they do not offer opportunities to allow for communication with Japanese speakers outside of the classroom. This can cause the students to think that it is just another class needed to be took and not actually anything worth using outside the classroom. This can also cause a major drop in motivation which causes major engagement loss. This has probably been my main point of demotivation as besides watching anime I have no other reason to learn it. Stating these downsides that students have faced should be used as information for what to avoid when trying to learn it yourself. Another negative aspect of learning Japanese to watch out for is the anxieties of speaking the language withing the class.
Sure, sitting in a class memorizing symbols is something that needs to be done however taking those symbols and forming sentences with them to be spoken can cause a lot of anxiety especially to shy or new learners. According to author Kazu Kitano in her article “Anxiety in the College Japanese Language Classroom” there can be a couple reasons which can cause students to feel anxiety when having to speak or use Japanese orally. One of those is when students compare themselves to their peers. According to Kitano’s study the higher skilled the class was the more students tended to have higher anxiety because they think that more is expected of them (Kitano 6). If the student fears not being able to meet the expectations of the class, the student will have a higher chance of being very anxious when doing speaking exercises. Another cause for student anxiety is when the student compares themselves to a native speaker. It is hard to avoid this because a lot of the material used to study involves a native speaker whether it is the teacher or the media or both there is always this hurdle (Kitano 11). It is important to avoid having too much anxiety in the classroom as it can cause students to believe that they cannot improve or are not making progress. This is because they compare themselves to the best students in the class or a native speaker and this makes them think that they have not improved. Hopefully saying the negatives surrounding the topic can show the hardships associated with learning Japanese and will allow you to combat and work around those challenges.
Japanese usually taught with a textbook right? Well, some textbooks do not go over the more informal and more natural conversations that are more normal for native Japanese speakers. I believe this should be an essential part of the earlier classes as having simple conversations are more appealing than going over all the complex rules. After all the reason I wanted to learn Japanese was because I wanted to understand the conversations used in anime and I highly doubt it is all formal. Yoshiko Matsumoto and Shigeko Okamoto state in their paper “The Construction of the Japanese Language and Culture in Teaching Japanese as a Foreign Language” that understanding the importance of when to be formal and when to be informal can allow for much more socially acceptable conversation (5). For example, when communicating with family its more socially acceptable to be more direct with your speech as it shows you are willing to be blunt which in turn shows respect (Matsumoto and Okamoto 6). If I were to speak to my mom in what the textbooks tell me while its technically correct doing so would seem like I am being distant. The formal nature of most textbooks can cause struggles with learning what is socially acceptable especially if there is no native speaker to help point that out. In fact, Japanese teachers have been found to teach in a more formal tone than their English counterparts even when Japanese is said to be the more informal language (Matsumoto and Okamoto 7). I feel like it would be more effective to integrate more informal forms of speech into earlier class rather than just all formal as it can allow students to get what most want early on (the ability to show off their new language skills). This would also promote more fun student to student conversations in Japanese which would give them another fun way to practice speech.
This brings me on to another way to pull new learners in, anime, which has some similarities to cartoons here which unlike cartoons here is a way more mainstream thing. That is how I first got interested in the Japanese culture and language, through watching a lot of anime. Anime provides a very visual and easy to interact with medium that would be a terrific addition to the beginning Japanese classroom. In the paper “The Use of Anime in Teaching Japanese as a Foreign Language” written by Chan Yee Han and Wong Ngan Ling they talk about how there is an extraordinarily strong coloration between people who watch anime and people who want to learn Japanese (1). The anime scene is full of many different genera and concepts that could all aide in teaching especially since it is so mainstream over in japan. Another reason anime is an especially useful tool in teaching is watching anime stimulates the visual part of the brain as well as the analytical part of the brain rather than just out of the book teaching which is just analytical (Chan Yee Han and Wong Ngan Ling 2). Since the brain uses the right side to process visual information and the left side for analytical information watching anime after doing some analytical studies would not be as tiring if it was just the analytical part. There is also a lot of different activities that can be added on to make the anime more classroom friendly like doing listening activities or have the students try and make their own dub. These activities would keep my interest in learning Japanese especially since I have such a big interest in it. Considering how much the popularity for anime has gone up it would make sense that there would be many new and excited students willing to take on the challenge of learning Japanese. Overall anime is a great tool that can be used to keep motivation in early learners up as well as engaged as it supplies a nice visual and easier to understand method if it is portrayed in a nice manner.
My experiences learning Japanese have been subpar to say the least as I have been trying to learn it on my own in my own free time and because of that it has become particularly challenging. It started when I decided to watch subbed anime instead of the English dubs since some anime’s did not have one. This opened me up to the sounds of Japanese and I started noticing similar sounds and phrases. This led me to want to try and learn Japanese to see maybe if I could learn to not have to use the subtitles. I knew it would be a lot of work and quite a lengthy process, but I did not even know about kanji at the time which I think will be my hardest challenge to be able to learn. I still have only really used Duolingo to practice the specific symbols of hiragana and some of katakana. However, in researching this topic there were many times that I would get distracted by the Japanese that was used in the papers as examples and I would spend time analyzing and breaking down those. I do still want to take an actual Japanese language class at some point and see how much more affective it will be. In doing the research for this paper I was constantly getting sucked into the articles and after reading them it made me even more motivated to want to learn Japanese, even try to transfer over there to study abroad.
With that question thoroughly answered there is still another that I would like to try and tackle and that is “what methods can be used to get passed the most challenging hurdle in learning Japanese, Kanji?” Learning kanji is a big struggle to overcome to be able to read and understand most Japanese. So, what is it exactly and why is it such a struggle? Well, kanji refers to one of three writing systems used by the Japanese and is basically the Chinese writing system but baked into Japanese. As stated earlier there are over 50,000 different kanji symbols all for something different. The average native user only knows about 2,000 of those however and less to be able to understand it well enough (Scott). However, 2,000 is a lot and the native speakers have been learning them all throughout their school years so it can be a real challenge to anyone foreign trying to memorize the same amount in a fraction of the time.
One way to approach this challenge is using a flipped classroom to allow for specific out of class time to go towards learning kanji then actual class can be spent on other things which are more useful to learn face to face. Writer Yuko Enomoto Prefume states in their work “Exploring a Flipped Classroom Approach in a Japanese Language Classroom: a Mixed Methods Study” that the flipped classroom method would be able to be very affective when out of class video lectures and other exercises related to the class time is combined with the normal classroom activities (Prefume 57). This allows for more time to be spent both situations able to have students learning there by doubling the about of content per class. Having the extra time in class allows for teachers to try a variety of different teaching techniques as well allowing for the creation of new more effective teaching (Prefume 56). Adding on to the aspect of the online portion learning kanji online is a decent option. In the article “What Motivates L2 Learners in Acquisition of Kanji Using CALL: A Case Study” written by Satoko Van Aacken, he talks about how using computers to study and learn kanji can enable students to go at their own pace because everyone learns differently. Applying this concept to the flipped classroom method and I propose fully online kanji lessons outside of class while in class can focus on the more complex aspects of the language in more detail. Plus, if it is at all possible the kanji courses should be made with the intention of students own pace with grading being based on individual progress rather than a specific number, AKA Quality over quantity. The online courses could also have testing days, but they are based on the students’ progress rather than a set number of kanji. This would allow for slower learners to move at a less frighting pace and fast learners can study to their hearts content. As long as the whole kanji learning process is individual with only some small check-ins in class that should eliminate a lot of the anxiety from the slow learners comparing themselves to the fast learners. While this method is a good use of time some problems can arise. For example, procrastination, which will most likely be the most challenging factor with keeping the students engaged. Having to do a lot of work studying out of class can cause a lot of focusing problems as well. I am a good example of that as I am a visual learner. I struggle learning out of a book and online school is quite the pain. Especially because of the recent corona virous pandemic causing all classes to be switched to online I fell way behind especially in classes I did not enjoy. It is all about motivation if your able to keep a student motivated to continue the class then they will continue to complete assignments and be able to learn something from the class.
Due to the pandemic most if not all classes had to move over to online methods of teaching at some point. So, how did the transition to online effect kanji learning? Well not the best according to a study done by Linna Meilia Rasiban in their article “Web-Based Kanji Characters Learning: Undergraduate Students’ Conception.” The study shows that while using web applications to learn kanji during the pandemic did work and there were 72% positive responses from the students there is still a quarter of the students surveyed who did not like it as much (Rasiban 3). However, despite that result there was still a positive overall response and is definitely moving in the right direction. I would argue that in the future it would be a great benefit to be able to learn kanji strictly online in a way that is engaging to as many students as possible. This could also be useful for people just trying to learn the language outside of school rather than using just flashcards and bruit force. I want to share some ideas and concepts to help with learning kanji that I learned from Greg Scott in his article “How to Learn Kanji: 7 Tips from a Guy Who Did It and Survived.” One of the tips he talks about is that instead of learning each full kanji it is possible to break down some into common radicals. Radicals are the smaller shapes that make up the full kanji and if there are similar radicals in separate kanji then they usually can be pronounced in similar ways. Another one is if you can match and allow connection of images to kanji it can make it a lot easier to remember them. Another one that I think would benefit me the most would be to show my writing to a native speaker and have them point out the mistakes, so it makes it easier to correct those mistakes. The most common method for taking on kanji is to just brute force study as many as possible and that is why it always seems the most daunting thing to new learners. I haven’t even started trying to learn any kanji yet even though I know I must however if I want to learn the language, I just need to allocate more time as it is very time consuming.
An interesting fact about remote Japanese learning is that there was actually a study done back in 1993 about having satellite instruction. They had a bunch of students around the U.S. participate to try and see if it would be a good option to bring Japanese to smaller schools that maybe did not offer as many languages. The results of the study showed basically the same thing as online schools now that motivation is a struggle and the students who kept the most motivation was those who were visual learners (Rebecca Oxford et al. 11). I thought this study was super interesting to read especially because of the current pandemic situation currently going on and how similar it ended up being even with the massive leap in technology since then.
In conclusion, the Japanese language is quite the challenge to learn but it sparks quite the interest as I work towards learning it as best I can. The classroom has a lot of different methods of teaching through communication as well as some possible alternative routes that can be taken to improve the classes. On top of that learning kanji can cause a lot of new learners to give up as it is quite the daunting task of memorization which can be very time consuming. Hopefully this paper was able to add some insight to learning Japanese or just any language in general by showing some of the bad things to allow for avoidance in the future as well as the best things to pull in an interest. All in all I really enjoyed researching this topic and reading all the articles have given me more motivation to hopefully take an actual Japanese class next year to try and improve my skills. I really liked reading the tips for learning kanji too and I feel like it will be a good use to me in the future.
Chan, Yee Han, and Ngan Ling Wong. “The use of anime in teaching Japanese as a foreign language.” Malaysian Online Journal of Educational Technology 5.2 (2017): 68-78.
Kitano, Kazu. “Anxiety in the college Japanese language classroom.” The Modern Language Journal 85.4 (2001): 549-566.
Matsumoto, Hiroshi. “Peak learning experiences and language learning: A study of American learners of Japanese.” Language, Culture and Curriculum 20.3 (2007): 195-208.
Matsumoto, Yoshiko, and Shigeko Okamoto. “The construction of the Japanese language and culture in teaching Japanese as a foreign language.” Japanese Language and Literature
Oxford, Rebecca, et al. “Japanese by satellite: Effects of motivation, language learning styles and strategies, gender, course level, and previous language learning experience on Japanese language achievement.” Foreign language annals 26.3 (1993): 359-371.
Prefume, Yuko Enomoto. Exploring a flipped classroom approach in a Japanese language classroom: a mixed methods study. Diss. 2015.
Rasiban, Linna Meilia. “Web-Based Kanji Characters Learning: Undergraduate Students’ Conception.” 4th International Conference on Sustainable Innovation 2020–Social, Humanity, and Education (ICoSIHESS 2020). Atlantis Press, 2021.
S Junjie, Shan, et al. “Analysis of dialogues difficulty in anime comparing with JLPT listening tests.” Procedia computer science 112 (2017): 1345-1352.
Scott, Greg, “How to Learn Kanji: 7 Tips from a Guy Who Did It and Survived” Enux Education Limited 2021, https://www.fluentu.com/blog/japanese/how-to-learn-kanji/
Van Aacken, Satoko. “What motivates L2 learners in acquisition of Kanji using CALL: A case study.” Computer assisted language learning 12.2 (1999): 113-136.