Saturday, December 17, 2005

Japanese 101 Wishlist

Now that I have a little bit of knowledge of Classical Japanese and some practical experience with modern Japanese, my understanding of the language has changed quite a bit. It must be a tough job to teach Japanese to native speakers of English, and I appreciate my old Japanese 101 teacher quite a bit, but still there are some things I wish they'd have done differently. Here's my wishlist for a new Japanese 101 textbook:

1. Teach plain form first.
In Japanese 101, we were taught that, say, "to drink" was "nomimasu." It wasn't until later that we learned the so-called "dictionary forms" like "nomu." Then it got more complicated when we learned "-te" and "-ta" forms--we had to go "nomimasu"->"nomu"->"nonde." It would have been simpler to start with the plain-form verbs. I know they don't want us to be impolite, but I think it's more logical to start this way. Besides, I found that when I got to Japan I needed to understand plain form more often, and I was accustomed to stilted "-masu" stuff. I had to jump through all the hoops to conjugate verbs.

2. Mention onbin.
I know that any in-depth discussion of that would send casual learner anime-fan undergrads running for the door, but the reasoning behind the seemingly-odd conjugation should get a mention, at least to leave students knowing that there is some method to the madness (see above--where did the "mu" go in "nonde"?). We did, however, learn a convenient mnemonic for conjugation to the tune of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town"--"u tsu ru-- tta, nu mu bu-- nda...."

3. Throw "anata" and "watashi" out the window.
I think many Japanese think of it as awkward "gaijin-ese" when a foreigner overuses these pronouns. Getting rid of them right at the beginning would help students to get accustomed to subjectless ("zero-pronoun") sentences and also the use of "ageru," "kureru," etc. which make the subjects and objects clear.

4. Explain auxiliary verbs.
This might send people running, too, if it's overdone, but stuff like "potential" and "causative forms" or jidoushi/tadoushi could be taught as auxiliary verbs. We were required to memorize long lists of jidoushi and their tadoushi equivalents (like "nobiru/nobasu"), and I remember thinking some seemed to fall into some sort of pattern ("-iru/-asu"). Now I know why. It would have been nice to have that long list of verbs broken down into types like that, if for nothing more than mnemonic purposes. When it becomes time for polite forms, "-masu" could be introduced in this way, too.

5. Teach radical and phonetic elements of Kanji.
I had Chinese under my belt before I started Japanese so I didn't have this problem, but I bet many people do. Japanese teachers told some pretty weird stories about how certain kanji mean what they mean (emphasizing the "pictograph" notion)--I don't know if they really believed that stuff or if they were just presenting these stories as mnemonic devices for students. But I think those mnemonics will present problems down the line as you can only memorize so much. When learning characters in the Chinese context, the radicals and phonetics are mentioned (and fairly obvious). Maybe teaching onyomi and kunyomi for characters right off the bat would help? Knowing the onyomi, the phonetics are easier to see, and therefore easier to memorize as they'd fall into place in a system.

I know it's a lot and it's complicated, but to me that's better than just having Japanese presented as a big mess to memorize. I think it would be very difficult in the beginning, but students would have a really strong foundation for further study.

What do you wish you knew then that you know now about Japanese?


amida said...

Bonus stocking stuffer:
For every form, etc., taught, teach it for "nomu" and "taberu." That way you have an easy-to-remember key for both class 1 and class 2 verbs.

Shae said...

We learned the "u tsu ru tta" mnemonic for "My Darling Clementine." Oh my darling = u tsu ru tta... etc.

I definitely second the plain form first curriculum, and more emphasis on the radicals. Dictionaries are almost useless without them.

Of course, studying more couldn't have hurt either. ;)

Mitch said...

I wish I'd learned the whole system of 部首(ぶしゅ)before starting to learn kanji.About eight years ago, I finally got around to memorizing the whole thing and it's made things a lot easier when it comes to learning new characters. Of course a Japanese 101 student having to learn 214 of them (plus 150 or so variations) would probably be a deal breaker for most people. But it would be so worth it! Even an abridged list of 50 or so would really help at the start.

IbaDaiRon said...

What textbook did you (all) use? At OSU (about 20 years ago...Yikes!) we used the Jordan Beginning Japanese series, which of course had (has?) its problems (I assume well-known). My copies are in the States and the memory ain't what it used to be, but I don't remember your first three items as being a problem.

As for #5, I also started out with Chinese, so in most cases I must have tuned out whatever mnemonic advice the teachers may have offered, concentrating more on remembering the Japanese pronunciation for characters and combinations I already knew (as well as picking up the differences in meanings/usage).

I'm not sure I agree with your #4, though. I wonder if calling such morphological elements "auxiliary verbs" might not lead to confusion, given that auxiliaries in English and many other languages are separate words. (It also smacks too much of the traditional J analysis for my taste!) I don't have any pedagogical research facts in mind to back that up, though.

(Had a hell of a time getting this comment to post...???)

amida said...

Jordan... that was the granddaddy of them all, wasn't it? I used a well-intentioned but ineffective book called Yookoso. It was big on teaching "strategies" such as saying "Eeto..." but unfortunately didn't provide the structure I need. But maybe that's just my learning style. My teacher didn't choose the book, either. She was one of the authors of the book Genki but for some bureaucratic reason we were locked into using Yookoso for the year I was in JPN 101. She was great, so I am sure her book is, too.

Later, in Japan, I used a book called Minna no Nihongo, then J301 or 501 or something like that. Neither was spectacular.

Aux verbs--maybe you are right. The terminology is a bit much, but it would be nice to know the connection between nobiru and nobasu, etc., call it what you will. Shift from teaching "forms" of verbs to add-ons.

Kanji--Bushu could be introduced a few at a time, and students could be at least made aware of how the system works. It would get them ready for later dictionary use.