On a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, we stopped by a Powell’s books to see what they had to offer. Besides having an amazing selection of many types of books, they actually had a section of Japanese books, most if not all which were used books. It was no Kinokuniya, but as you may know the number of bookstores in the USA which actually contain any Japanese books at all is extremely limited.
A quick glance at the available Japanese books revealed many old ones, and not too much that I felt was worth purchasing. However for some reason a certain book caught my eye, and I pulled it off the shelve to flip through. It was by published in 1990 by Babel Press (バブル・プレス), written by Kazuko Nakagawa (中川かず子) with a long, difficult title:
Here is my rough translation of this:
Teaching methods based on student native language (English Edition) Notes on instructing English speakers – Teaching Japanese 1
After skimming through the book for just a minute or two, I decided to purchase it, and would go on to read the first half of the book in the next few days, with a good portion of that progress being made on the several hour flight back to the East coast.
At first you may be wondering what is so interesting about this book. Although I do have an interest in teaching Japanese (as I guess you can tell from this blog), that isn’t the main reason I enjoyed it. The reason is because much of the content of this book actually applies to Japanese learners (like myself), assuming you have sufficient reading level to be able to figure out what the book is saying (and the level is pretty high).
A large portion of this book is taken from the author’s experiences in teaching Japanese to English speakers and her research in related teaching methods. For example, the first of three chapters is “日本語と英語の違いからの問題” (“Problems stemming from differences between Japanese and English”). This chapter is divided into three sub chapters, “音声” (pronunciation [literally “voice”]), “文法・構文” (grammar and sentence structure) and “語彙・表現” (words and expressions).
Examples of the “pronunciation” sub chapter is why English-speakers have trouble with the Japanese pitch accent and why they have problems with other areas of Japanese pronunciation (like properly saying the pause in the middle of “言った”). The “grammar and sentence structure” subchapter talks about items such as like the differences between English “yes”/”no” and Japanese “はい”/”いいえ”, and why some sentences like ”将来何になるか、まだ知りません” may seem correct to English-speakers, but are in fact unnatural.
As I was reading through the first two-thirds of this book, I was really amazed by much of the content since I had never read an analysis this detailed about common problems in learning Japanese for English speakers. While I think I’ve figured out maybe 30-40% of these things on my own, in some cases it took 5-10 years for me to realize them without being told explicitly. There was also alot of great cultural nuggets here (that is what the 2nd chapter is about), like how verbs can be more emphasized in Japanese, whereas the doer of the action is more often emphasized in English.
But alas, this book does suffer from a few problems. One of them, not at all the fault of the author, is that the book is now over 25 years old, and I think there has been some changes in what makes truly “natural” Japanese in that span of time, as well as changes to English.
Another issue is that some of the English is unnatural or borderline incorrect in the book, though to be fair that is only a relatively small part. Also, I feel some of the examples chosen by the author to illustrate or prove her point were a bit cherry picked. For example, she might say “Saying XXX is unnatural in English, therefore…”, but when I thought about “XXX” it actually wasn’t that unnatural. Again, some of this could have been the fact that the language has changed over time. There even was a few examples where the Japanese, or the interpretation of it, seemed a bit unnatural (which I confirmed by asking a Japanese person), but again that could be due to the generation gap between now and then.
The third chapter focused on talking about various teaching techniques, and was a bit dry and hard to plough through, partially because there was some heavy usage of educational terms I was not very familiar with, and also because some of it was about survey data that was now over 25 years old.
I mentioned above that the book’s Japanese was difficult, and while this is true, because I actually had a good intuitive grasp of many of the items discussed, it was pretty easy for me to fill in the blanks. Having said that, unless you have at least 4-5 years of heavy Japanese study, I wouldn’t recommend this book.
Despite the some of the problems with this book, overall it was a great read which was extremely satisfying. I hope to someday be able to find a more modern book written about similar topics.
I was thinking about translating some of the more useful lessons from this book into English so that a wider audience could appreciate them, but as I have so many other things I want to translate I’ll have to figure out when to get to it. But if you are interested in me translating any part of this book please leave a comment.