Second of two parts

The main problem with Japan’s English-language education lies in its sterile approach to words, as if a grasp of their exact meaning is sufficient preparation for understanding and speaking the language. It isn’t. You can’t look at a box of paint tubes and visualize a Rembrandt. Words have no meaning outside the context of culture, history and the personalities of native speakers.

Every language presents its own special difficulties for the non-native. For those of us who came to Japanese from the outside, the multi-readings of kanji and the length of vowels are killers. Chinese has its tones. And, if you take on Polish, you must conquer clusters of jaw-breaking consonants. But, of the major languages studied around the world, when it comes to complexity, English tops the lot.

Take spelling. The spelling of English words is often erratic and inconsistent. Yet attempts to codify and regularize it in the past 200-odd years have been rebuffed. So now, if you can’t seem to figure out how words are spelled — or spelt — you’ll just have to forgedaboudit.

Then there’s stress. This word is, indeed, spot on for describing one of the most frustrating impediments to learning English. If only English had penultimate stress like Latin! Not only is the stress in words irregular, it moves. Add an “er” and “PHOtograph” becomes “phoTOgrapher.” Sometimes the stress jumps two syllables, as when “POPular” turns into “popuLARity.”

Meanwhile, English pronunciation itself is as about unphonetic as you can get. Why “nerd,” “bird,” “word,” “heard” and “curd” all rhyme defies the logic of orthography.

The definite and indefinite articles, too, are fiendishly troublesome to a speaker of Japanese or Russian, for instance, as in those languages there is no equivalent of “the” and “a.” I often ask my students which of the following is correct: I’ll have steak; I’ll have a steak; I’ll have the steak. In fact, all three are correct — depending on the menu.

Then there’s the sheer multipicity of words essentially conveying the same meaning. So, when you throw something, you can toss it, sling it, fling it, cast it, hurl it, pitch it, lob it, bowl it, heave it or chuck it — depending on what “it” is and how you are propelling it. The Japanese “chuck out” prime ministers like old sofas.

Similarly, when you hail from a certain city, it would be nice just to be able to identify yourself by adding “-er” to the city’s name, e.g. New Yorker. No such luck; no such straightforward consistency in English. A person from Liverpool is a Liverpudlian (or a Scouser); from Glasgow, a Glaswegian; from Newcastle, a Novocastrian (or a Geordie); from Manchester, a Mancunian. I’m originally a Los Angeleno, but now I’m a Tokyoite and a Sydneysider. Oh for the simplicity of Japanese, where “jin,” meaning “person,” is simply tacked on to the name of the city in any country in the world.

Quirky spelling, wandering stress, pronunciation like guesswork, articles that appear and disappear for no good reason and a routine vocabulary of Himalayan proportions . . . put it all together and you just wish you could turn the clock back to 1588 and get the Spanish Armada to defeat the English fleet. Maybe then we would now all be speaking Spanish, a much more regular and sensible language, and a much easier language for a non-native to learn.

Given all the outrageous slings and arrows the English language hurls in the face of the innocent student, what can one do to safely ascend the “Mountain of Fluency” to which I referred in this column last week?

Before anything, what not to do.

As I travel on trains in Tokyo, I often see Japanese school children studying their English with a book in their hands. Over the pages they place a red clear-plastic sheet. They are memorizing words. Let’s see. Keizai. Peek under the sheet: Economics. Got it. Korosu. Another peek: “To kill.” The train is slowing down. The student closes the book, red sheet inside, with a smile on their lips . . . ready for the exam today.

This process is meaningless and counterproductive. It has very little to do with learning a language. Learning individual words out of a social context is a dreary waste of time. It barely budges you a half-step up that high mountain. When does keizai indicate “economics,” and when “the economy”? If someone is killed in a road accident, you would certainly not want to say they were “korosareta” — unless, that is, the driver was intent on murder.

Language acquisition depends upon both passive and active knowledge. In order to acquire a passive knowledge of a language, you need to do three things — listen, watch, think. And you need to do them all at once, processing the words and gestures coming your way with one thing in mind: What is this person trying to say? You cannot begin to answer that question without knowing who is speaking to you. The common word “god” has a variety of implications, depending on whether it is spoken by someone in Cairo, Egypt or Cairo, Oklahoma. And as for “freedom,” it’s not even worth discussing unless you know where your discussant is coming from.

Japanese language-education is largely a process of decoding words and analyzing syntax. Until this dreary methodology is abandoned, Japanese students will continue to find themselves disheartened and disinterested.

Words must be experienced to be understood. You are standing on a street corner in a country whose language you do not know well, and someone, smiling and pointing to the traffic signal, says, “The light will change momentarily.” You will probably understand this. You may even naturally learn the word “momentarily.” After all, you already know “moment”; and the context makes the meaning clear. The “light” is the thing the person pointed to.

But if that same native speaker suddenly walked up to you and asked, “Do you understand the phrase, ‘The light will change momentarily’?” you would probably find yourself embarrassingly in the dark.

This is why good teachers of a language always illustrate words, phrases and expressions with a little story or drama, something that both verbally and visually sticks in the mind. Such a teacher is an invaluable sherpa who can get you up the slopes of that fluency mountain before you know it.

As for active knowledge — that is, being able to use the language yourself — this requires a degree of self- confidence and what the Japanese call tasseikan (a sense of achievement), that, sadly, is rarely imparted to Japanese students.

Japanese society, at virtually all levels, conspires to keep people — and not only young people — in their place. Yes, it creates a nation of the humble and self-effacing; but it also hampers accomplishment and positive self-assertiveness. Whatever may be the society’s virtues, cramping a student’s personal style and lowering an invisible sarcophagus over their confidence suffocates language acquisition more than anything in the world.

My advice to students is always the same: Just say it; don’t sweat the mistakes; be wrong; if you don’t understand someone, pretend that you do; take a keen interest in other people; listen . . . watch . . . think.

It is commonly said that Japanese people are not good at foreign languages. This is patent rubbish. The summit of that fluency mountain is accessible to people of all nationalities. Once you see it with your own two eyes, you’ll never look back.

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