• SHARE

The education ministry’s proposal to establish hub schools staffed by special instructors to help foreign students learn Japanese is sorely needed. The number of foreign students attempting to do so had risen to about 37,000 in 2014, a 160 percent increase from a decade earlier. But the case for American students is particularly compelling.

That’s because Japanese and English have very little in common. Japanese has three alphabets, a very different grammar and syntax, and complex levels of formality. There are thousands of characters to master. Compounding the difficulty is that multiple words exist for counting, depending on the size and shape involved.

It’s little wonder, therefore, that the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State ranks Japanese as even more challenging than the other five languages in the top category of difficulty. The institute estimates that it takes a minimum of 2,200 hours to learn Japanese. By comparison, it takes about 600 hours to learn Spanish, French or Italian.

Even if Americans are highly motivated, they quickly learn that speaking Japanese is harder than listening, since the latter often is accompanied by contextual clues. For example, the ability to order a meal in a restaurant is not the same as the ability to engage in a business negotiation. That’s why the Foreign Service classifies language ability into five levels, with “1” being the lowest and “5” being the highest — for very good reason.

None of this should come as a surprise. Americans have long been tongue-tied compared with citizens of other countries. For example, in Europe it’s common for people to speak two or even three languages. According to U.S. Census data, 10 percent of native-born citizens feel comfortable conversing in a language other than English. In contrast, 53 percent of Europeans are able to do so. America’s size and insularity have not been conducive to learning a foreign language of any kind.

That’s slowly changing, however, as the demands of the global economy become more apparent.

It’s taking the form of dual-language immersion programs that are growing in popularity in elementary and secondary schools. Even in California, where Proposition 227 in 1998 mandated English-only programs, school districts are defying the law. In 2008, for example, there were 224 such programs in 100 school districts, with considerably more in recent years.

Whether the hub schools in Japan will follow the U.S. in adopting dual-language immersion programs is unclear.

Legitimate differences exist about the most effective way to teach and learn a foreign language. Yet there is hope, if learning Mandarin is any guide. It’s estimated that as many as 50,000 students in the U.S. are taking Mandarin in school, with demand unabated.

Whatever policy is ultimately adopted by hub schools in Japan, the immediate problem is going to be finding a supply of sufficiently trained teachers. Unless salaries are competitive, teachers will avoid offers to teach there. That’s certainly the situation in rural areas of Japan, which offers none of the attractions available to teachers in large cities.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW