Friday, 2 November 2012

"So how do you say

"hello" and "goodbye" in Japanese," is apparently a question a mother asked a Year 6 student and her friends. They had apparently been "learning Japanese" since they began school. They could say "hello" but not "goodbye" according to a letter in our paper this morning.
It was timely because yesterday someone else asked me to say a bit more more language teaching.  I was doing the weekly big shop in the supermarket and was accosted by someone I know, introduced to someone else and asked to give them some advice on whether their child should begin Japanese.
The first question I asked was, "Does your child want to learn Japanese?"  The answer was "No, but you know what the government is saying about Asian languages so we wondered if he should do that instead of French or Italian."
         "Do either of you speak French or Italian?"
         "I speak some French - and we know people who speak French and Italian."
         "Does he want to learn French or Italian?"
         "He doesn't really want to learn a language at all but we could probably convince him that his interest in Formula One racing would be enhanced with a knowledge of Italian."
And so the conversation went on. I pointed out that learning Japanese demands a commitment that even the schools are not (yet) prepared to make. You do not learn Japanese in the minimum time alloted for language teaching. It would take three or four times as long to reach the same level as it would for a language like Italian. Even the two young people of Japanese extraction who work in the local sushi shop do not read and write Japanese. The children of the Chinese couple next door speak but do not read and write Cantonese.
The Whirlwind is learning French (and Latin) at school. She is also learning Italian as an extra. She likes language learning. Her French teacher gives them work designed to ensure that they can say some genuinely useful things. They have to "shop" and "go to the doctor" and "travel on transport" and many other things. Her Italian teacher, the mother of a friend also learning Italian, talks to her in Italian and gives them the same sort of exercises in Italian.  Both girls could say "hello" and "goodbye" and many other useful things a long time ago.
I suspect the Japanese students have been told how to say "goodbye" and have forgotten. I also suspect they cannot "go shopping" or "visit the doctor" or "travel on transport" and that, unless they really begin to study the languages seriously, they never will. They are playing at learning Japanese.
My nephews were required to "learn Chinese". They were also required to learn some French. They cannot remember any Chinese although the youngest one was second in class (the first was a native Chinese speaker). I am not sure how much French they remember but it is some.
Of course some of it has to do with actually being in a situation where you need to use the language you are learning but there is more to it than that, much more. I could not in all honesty recommend that the son of the person I was talking to learns Japanese. He might pick up some Italian - especially the language of motor racing.
If we want children to learn Japanese or Chinese then there are going to have to be some radical changes to the way these things are taught - and a great deal more time spent on them or even saying "konnichiwa" and "sayonara" will be beyond them.

1 comment:

jeanfromcornwall said...

You are right. Learning a language that is so foreign to a "European" speaker takes real dedication - it can't be done in a few hours a week by a child who is not that keen.
I can still remember - and use - the French I learned fifty years ago, but that is because there are so many points of contact between that language and my own, and because I loved it while I was learning it.