Wednesday, 7 July 2010

A Love Letter to Japan

Dear Japan,

I know that we haven't been together for very long, but I can no longer keep myself from saying these words. I think I love you.

At first, I thought that this would be no more than a fling. We would have some laughs together, I assumed, and then I would go back to what I knew. But now that we are together, I can't bear the thought of leaving you. Perhaps it is too soon; I know that we are still in the honeymoon phase, but sometimes I dream that we are seperated, and I can't bear it.

Things have not always been easy between us, I know. Sometimes it is as if we don't speak the same language, but we always get by somehow. As time goes by, I feel that I understand you more and more, although I know you will never truly reveal your secrets to me. That is, after all, a part of your charm, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

Friday, 2 July 2010

"Pardon?" - How Well Do Language Courses Equip Us For Real Conversation?

When you learn a new language, where do you begin? Some people half-jokingly tell me that you have to learn the vulgar words first. Others would begin from the bottom up with "My name is.." and "how are you?", which seems the most logical step, and the one that most language courses take. However, it seems to me that language lessons do not equip people to have an effective conversation in their chosen new language.

Take, for example, my students. While their textbooks try to build a foundation for their English-speaking abilities (starting from "this is____" and, by third grade, going up to simple stories), I see tasks being set that stretch their English beyond its natural capacities, and it is of little wonder to me that many children have no enthusiasm for learning English. At one of my schools at the moment, third graders are translating a Disney storybook (Snow White) from English to Japanese. This is a painfully slow process, as the story uses storybook language and expressions that they would never have encountered before. So, they can translate "a handsome prince came and fell in love with Snow White" into Japanese, while my other third graders are performing their speeches - "Hamamatsu is a big industrial city", "my school has an abudnace of nature" - wow, what? That's great! But you ask them "what music do you like?" and you get a blank stare, an "eeeeeee?", a lot of "nan dake??" and a general sense of confusion.