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.

It isn't just the Japanese education system that is to blame, though. I say this because I am studying Japanese every day. So, let's take this sentence - " テレビを付けっぱなしにしなければ眠れない人は結構いる" - which, with the help of Tae Kim's Guide to Japanese, I can work out to mean roughly "there exist a fair number of people who can't sleep without turning the TV on and leaving it on". That's all very nice, but there have been many occasions where a Japanese person has asked me something ridiculously simple, such as "how long have you been here?" and I draw a blank, having no idea what they said, or perhaps having a good idea but completely forgetting how to answer. I catch words, but I don't think that I know how to say things that should, really, be the first things that we learn in another language - for example, "how do you say this in Japanese?" or "can you say that in simpler language?"... again, students will ask me to translate super-complicated sentences for them (which I can't, because I'm not supposed to know ANY Japanese) and yet most of them don't actually seem to be able to say "how do you say this?" or "what does this mean?"... they just kind of point at it, and maybe say "su-pell-u!" or "how say?".

That's my first observation about how a language is taught and learnt. The second is the massive difference between the way a language is spoken naturally, and the way that it is presented in textbooks. Most Japanese language courses seem to only teach the formal, which is why I like Tae Kim's - it teaches informal, and the massive amount of "da yo!" and "desu ne?" at the end of sentences makes me think that it reflects natural Japanese speech a little more than most. I observed this kind of thing from people who were learning Welsh... what they come out with, while correct, sounds stuffy and bizarre because it is all very formal. When they listen to the natural way that we speak it in everyday conversation - shortening everything, dropping slang and English words in there like there's no tomorrow... well, they have no idea what's going on.

Take this English conversation from a first grade English textbook in Japan. This is how my students are learning English.
Andy: Is that your room?
Takeshi: No, it isn't. This way, please. This is my room.
Andy: Nice room! Is this your favourite (sorry, favorite) team?
Takeshi: Yes, it is.
Andy: (Who has suddenly and inexplicably turned on someone else's laptop, which has pictures of his family on it) This is my brother Tom. He's a baseball fan. This is my sister Judy.
Takeshi: Is she a junior high school student?
Andy: No, she isn't. She's an elementary school student.
Yuki: She's cute.
Andy: What's that?
Takeshi: The thing on the desk? It's a shogi board.
Andy: Shogi?
Takeshi: Yes. It's Japanese chess.
Yuki: Takeshi is a good shogi player.
Andy: Oh, really?

Wow. Stilted, much? Of course, I have heard this dialogue, listened to children read it out and said it myself approximately 50 million times in the last two months, so I have started to form my own version of it in my head. So... let's factor in the way that people actually speak, the fact that these guys are supposed to be students and my imagination and see what this conversation would look like in real life:
Andy: Is that your room?
Takeshi: Uhh, no. How did you get in? My room's up here. Here.
Andy: Sweet digs. Is this your favorite team?
Takeshi: Yah.
Andy: OK, so I'm gonna take over your laptop now. Ooh, let's check my Facebook. Do you guys wanna see my family?
Takeshi: Uhm.....
Andy: This is my brother Tom. He's really into baseball. And this is my sister, Judy.
Takeshi: Is she in junior high?
Andy: No, dude, she's at elementary school.
Takeshi: Ohh, damn.
Yuki: She's cute!
Andy: (Changing the subject) What's that?
Takeshi: Huh? The thing on the desk? It's a shogi board.
Andy: Shogi?
Takeshi: Yeah, it's like... Japanese chess.
Yuki: Takeshi kicks ass at shogi.
Andy: You do, huh?

At this point, in my head, Andy challenges Takeshi to shogi, which he has never heard of before. He is, of course, horrendously defeated, at which point he gets really upset and kicks over the shogi board. He then proceeds to jump up and down on the bed, chewing furiously at the laptop, images of his siblings still glowing on the screen. Takeshi and Yuki glance nervously at each other before backing out of the room.

Hmmm, but I digress. While my students can cite these dialogues word for word (really useful, thanks, teachers), they get confused when I ask them.. well, anything slightly different. They'll tell me "I like movies", and I said "ohh, what movies do you like?" or "what's your favourite movie?" and they look at me as if I just recited Shakespeare. I have tried to inject some more natural speech into my lessons, but the general attitude seems to be - teach them what they need to pass the test, it doesn't matter that they can't actually hold a conversation in English. Ah well.

I don't think language courses are to blame for ill-equipping learners to deal with real life conversation. The most effective way to pick up a language seems to be being around it and speaking with natives. I know people who have studied Japanese for years, but put them in the middle of Japanese speakers and they have no idea what's going on. Then again, people who've never picked up a textbook can sometimes hold entire conversations, because they've learnt from their friends and from being around it.

I've been shying away from this integration... I hang out with a lot of Japanese people, but we end up speaking English most of the time. It's not that I'm incapable of holding a conversation in Japanese, it's just... well, easier to speak English when I know they'll understand me. What I really need to do is to meet Japanese people with no English (or other foreigners here with no English, where Japanese is our only common language) and try to make conversation. It's scary and it's difficult, but it has to be the best way. There's only so much I can stare at online language courses instead of actually talking to my coworkers...right?


  1. This is actually a fairly common problem, having Japanese friends who will only speak English with you. Whether or not they show it, your Japanese friends may be reluctant to speak Japanese with you because they don't have many opportunities to practice English. They can speak Japanese with anyone.

    Making friends with Japanese people who don't speak much or any English can also be difficult. They may be shy or even disinterested in speaking with you because of the language barrier, or simply because you are a foriegner. Japanese persons interested in foriegn things and people tend to learn some English.

    The onus is largely on you. You have to force yourself to speak primarily in Japanese amongst these groups. As that can get tiresome, a better option is to tell one of your Japanese friend you feel closer to about your desire to improve your Japanese. Ask them to be your language partner, and primarily speak in the other's language when together. This is a person you can direct your language and cultural questions at, and you can correct each other's speech.

    The other option is to head out to the boonies and make friends with some Japanese people out there. People in the inaka tend to be quite friendly, inquisitive, and have weaker English ability.

  2. Your textbook convo translation made me laugh.

  3. Thanks for the Japanese language programme recommendation, Gwynnie! I've downloaded the iPhone app and will give it a shot. I'm really enjoying your blog, btw, I'm catching up today after Twitter reminded me that you're over in Japan...