#111 Japanese Language Education for Coexisting with Foreigners
Associate Professor Hiroshi Matsuzaki, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
With the number of foreigners living in Japan as exchange students or workers increasing year by year, the question of how they should be taught Japanese is becoming an issue. Teaching Japanese requires knowledge not only of grammar but also of Japanese society and culture and of international relations as well. Also, it is vital to adapt teaching methods to learners' needs and individual attributes. Prof. Matsuzaki is researching new Japanese language education methodology necessary for daily life and for studying and working in Japan.
When living in another country, it's extremely important to acquire ability in that country's language. Japan is promoting policies actively encouraging the acceptance of exchange students and foreign laborers. As part of that effort, a law concerning the promotion of Japanese language education was enacted this past June. However, in contrast to subjects taught in schools, there is no public certification such as a teaching license to become a teacher of Japanese to foreigners, nor is there a curriculum standardizing course guidelines. These are the conditions under which Prof. Matsuzaki conducts his research into how to teach Japanese to non-native learners, and how to train teachers of such students.
Japanese language learners include children who have come with their parents to Japan. There is a tendency to believe that such children acquire Japanese language ability naturally by attending local schools, playing with friends and so on. However, BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skill) are different from CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency), the latter being the level required for learning and advancing in school. Very few schools are properly equipped to take in children with rudimentary Japanese language skills. It is by no means rare for them to receive no support while being thrust suddenly into a regular class unable to keep up with the lessons. A survey conducted by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology indicates that a high percentage of high school students requiring Japanese language guidance drop out of school or end up in irregular employment. This is a problem for Japanese society at large and, for this reason as well, it is important that Japanese language education does not allow such students to fall through the cracks.
Foreigners who study Japanese can be likened to Japanese people studying English. However, foreigners staying in Japan long-term, or who wish to settle in Japan, need to acquire Japanese language skills in order to go about their lives. This involves learning Japanese culture and the way Japanese society is organized. For that reason, in recent years, Japanese language teachers have been called upon to be knowledgeable not only about grammar, vocabulary and traditional Japanese culture but also to have a broader knowledge of pedagogy, sociology and psychology, along with intercultural communication and international understanding. Also indispensable in Japanese language education for foreign children is that the teacher has knowledge of adolescent development and of school education, along with practical educational and social skills. With the interdisciplinary connections it possesses, the University of Tsukuba has tremendous potential for developing Japanese language teachers. To that purpose, Prof. Matsuzaki has formed a research group along with educators in various fields and recruited student volunteers. For starters, the group is carrying out joint research centering on difficulties faced by the University of Tsukuba exchange students and their families.
Prof. Matsuzaki is also interested in the pronunciation of Japanese. Under the influence of their native languages, many learners have problems with correct pronunciation, such as shortening "kawaii" to "kawai." Naturally, with practice they can learn to pronounce the terms correctly, but when conversing it can be bothersome to have to be on one's guard against making pronunciation mistakes. One of Prof. Matsuzaki's research themes involves ways to make the study of pronunciation as easy as possible. In actual conversation, the intonation of even identical words can change depending on context. This has caused him to turn his attention to context-based series of phrases, which facilitates efficient mastery of accent, intonation and rhythm. Even if a speaker makes minor pronunciation errors, the overall phrase will sound like natural Japanese, which is a key point in conversation. Prof. Matsuzaki is developing educational materials and pronunciation practice software for these purposes.
Prof. Matsuzaki began taking interest in Japanese as a language when he was in high school. However, as he didn't have a flair for literature, he hesitated to become a Japanese teacher. It was at this time that universities around the country, aiming to increase their numbers of exchange students, began creating programs to train teachers of Japanese. Prof. Matsuzaki decided to enter the University of Tsukuba, which pioneered this type of program. At first, he thought the idea involved simply the exclusion of literature from Japanese education, but when he actually began his studies, he realized the profundity of Japanese language education.
Many people consider Japanese to be more difficult than other languages, but Prof. Matsuzaki claims that view is mistaken. The ease of foreign language study is greatly affected by a learner's native language and by the learner's study environment. Foreign-born sumo wrestlers quickly become fluent in speaking Japanese, and many people introduced to the Japanese language via anime, manga and other types of popular culture acquire mastery of the language according to their own methods. The notion that foreigners cannot master Japanese represents a psychological barrier that Japanese people themselves have erected. An orderly learning environment within overall society, one that sustains good relations with people around the learner and helps maintain motivation, is important for language acquisition. Considered in this light, supporting Japanese language studies is a task falling to all of us in the interest of coexisting with foreigners.
Prof. Matsuzaki says that sharing and finding ways of putting into practice the know-how and knowledge of locales that actively take in foreigners is an issue in contemporary Japanese language education.
Speech recognition program by which learners, while monitoring their own pronunciation, can practice intonation of phrases.
Article by Science Communicator at the Office of Public Relations