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Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012
Learning a foreign language: blood, sweat and beers
By AMY CHAVEZ
A recent education ministry survey evaluated Japanese "third-year middle school students" on their attitudes toward learning English. One editorial indicated that the results of the survey showed that students nationwide had an "ambivalent and contradictory attitude toward English." Wow, imagine 14-year-olds being ambivalent and contradictory!
The problem seems to be that while 85 percent of the students thought English was important, and 70 percent said knowing English would help them get a job, only 11 percent wanted a job requiring English. The editorial found this contrast between what students said was important and what they wanted for themselves "disappointing."
But I wonder, should we expect 14-year-olds to have clear ideas of what they want to do in their careers? I can think of lots of things that, like English, would be advantageous to a career, but that doesn't mean students should study them all.
The fact that English is an international standard only matters if you're aspiring to . . . an international standard. Even if 14-year-old Kumiko has decided she definitely wants to become a horse-whisperer in Hokkaido, I doubt she'll need English to talk to her clients. Even if Taro-kun has already set his sights on being the top plastic bento grass salesman, I doubt he'll need, or even want, English to achieve that. And if they do decide they need English, they can always study it later.
With so many Japanese companies in China making everything from tombstones to car parts and ¥100 knickknacks, you have to wonder why Japanese students would have a hankering to learn English. Chinese may be more beneficial to their careers, especially if they decide to go into the business of selling shark fins, bird's nests, deer antlers or other Chinese aphrodisiacs. With the kanji writing system already in place and a similar grammar structure, Chinese seems to be an obvious foreign language option. Students could even take a 45-minute flight to China for the weekend just to practice!
Some students in the United States choose to learn Japanese over the more common French, German or Spanish, but you can hardly call this "disappointing." The Japanese are delighted that some English speakers have decided to learn Japanese instead of more popular, international languages.
According to the editorial, the survey revealed that only 30 percent of students said they liked English if they had to choose between "like" or "dislike." Despite the quaint juxtaposition of Facebook and George Bush ("You're either with us or against us"), I'm not sure I can agree with the conclusion that the results of the survey "do not make one hopeful about the future." Um, whose future?
Now, I suspect that the future is much larger and more encompassing than the English language. People in countries all over the world, who speak no English at all, still have hopeful futures full of wealth, happiness and over-priced retirement villages. Think of all the successful people in Japan who don't speak any English at all! Should we really put all the burden of Japanese students' future on the English language?
Besides, of all the languages is the world, maybe what Japanese students have a yen to learn is not English, or even Chinese. The truly sagacious student would be keen to study Swahili. I mean, very few Japanese people speak Swahili! Think of how much more in demand you'd be if you were one of the very few Swahili-speaking Japanese people in the nation.
These days, Japanese students don't go to university with the sole intention of being better equipped to get a job. They go to get educated. They earn art degrees, even if they know they cannot likely make a living in art. They study music with no guarantee they'll be able to get a job in the industry. Some people go on to careers in these, others don't. As a former Japanese university English teacher, I can tell you firsthand that English-major graduates often end up doing clerical work that doesn't require English and international business majors end up selling computer technology to the domestic market.
Foreign languages can open doors. But so can science, engineering, the arts and any other subject studied in school.
It's not easy to acquire a foreign language. I've only learned them through a lot of blood, sweat and beers. Have these languages (Spanish, Japanese and Indonesian) all helped me in my career? Yes. Did I learn them for that reason? No. My incentive was to hobnob with the locals I was living among, and be able to communicate with, and learn from, a greater diversity of people.
As much as I love foreign languages, there is nothing more frustrating to me than learning them. It's up there with professional sports when it comes to rigorous training, propensity for injury, and constant humiliation (how many times have I gone home wounded after hurting someone's feelings by calling them something I didn't mean to, or felt humiliated when someone felt so sorry for me they were compelled to compliment me on my poor Japanese?).
If you need something to bring down your confidence or increase the number of blunders you already make in a day, then by all means, learn a foreign language! If you don't mind being laughed at when you make mistakes, if it doesn't bother you that people constantly wince at you because they don't understand your accent, and if you can endure people elevating their voices to help you understand their language, then bring it on!
But for most people, a strong desire to avoid humiliation is natural — and who would be more aware of this than 14-year-olds?
And even after you acquire a foreign language, the propensity to trip over new vocabulary, old grammar and dodgy spellings for the rest of your life is imminent. If you don't mind the occasional Freudian slip in front of a CEO that is so shocking your entire body flushes ruby red with embarrassment, then you are a born foreign language learner.
But it's also no wonder Japanese students are obsessed with the safety of cutesy, warm and fuzzy little mascots.
I believe students should follow their hearts when it comes to learning English. As my father always says, "Do what you love first. Success will follow."