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Friday, October 12, 2012

"English is too hard"

A sixth grade student commented in class, “Why doesn’t Mr. Kimball have to learn Japanese?” “English is too hard to learn. Japanese is easy.” Sensei quickly responded, “You have it backwards. Japanese is a very difficult language to learn. English is relatively easy.” I pointed to the world map and explained (with the help of sensei) that if you compared the Japanese language to the languages spoken around the world, English is easy to learn. The U.S. State Department allows its students three times longer to learn Japanese than any of the easier languages. According to this website “You can’t learn to speak the language (Japanese) by learning to read it, and vice versa.”

This makes me wonder…if Japanese is so difficult to learn, then shouldn’t English be easy for the Japanese to master? I think it would be if the students were able to use English on a daily basis. Japan does not have a diversified culture. I can go months without seeing a foreigner. Some of my students have never seen a foreigner in person. It’s this isolation that prevents students from using and learning a foreign language. My students are exposed to English for 45 minutes each week. The students don’t have a chance to use what they have learned, so naturally they forget. This follows the adage, “Use it or lose it.”

I can see why the students think English is difficult to learn. They aren’t exposed to the language on a daily basis like other, more diversified countries are. Here is a personal example. I don’t have to struggle with the native language in Japan. Erika does everything for me. Neither of us likes to watch TV and my private life is in English. At school, only a few teachers that can speak English approach me. I make conversation with those teachers in English. I try to understand the students and they try to understand me by using gestures, simple Japanese and English. Why do I need to learn a foreign language if it’s not required or necessary? Sure, I sometimes feel isolated, but even the foreigners that can speak Japanese fluently feel isolated.

Is there a solution? The problem of isolation can’t easily be solved. The Japanese are fiercely proud of their nation and culture. I don’t see the Japanese envy western civilization. I more or less see the Japanese look upon “Westerners” as being gaijin (foreigners). If a foreigner follows the rules and respects the culture, then they are tolerated. Sometimes I wonder if learning English is “tolerated” only because the Ministry of Education makes it so. Japan gives the impression that they are promoting internationalism, but their governmental policies prove otherwise. If you don’t believe it, just try to get a visa as a foreigner.   George




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