Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A refreshing new approach to English Literature

I had several friends at Waseda who were majoring in English literature. On first meeting them, I was very excited to meet some people with common interests, and maybe they would have an entirely different viewpoint on works in the canon. So, I asked:

"You're an English literature major, right?"
"So, who is your favorite author?"
[Confused look]
"Ah...I don't know?"
"Okay...what's your favorite book then?"
[Still confused]
"Ah...I don't know?"
"Well...what's a book you like then?
"-Yeah, you don't know, I get it."

This puzzled me at the time, but I wrote it off as just a problem with the intellectual laziness of my particular friends. Recently though, I've come to realize that of the many English teachers at my school - several of whom were English lit majors - none could name any book they particularly enjoyed. As it turns out, there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for why a person majoring in English literature could be without either a favorite author or book, or really, even a book they liked. You see, English literature majors at Japanese colleges don't really read books.

Let me emphasize that:
English literature majors in Japan don't read books.

If you study English literature here, it seems you are not required to actually read a book written in English. You are not even really required to read a chapter of a book. What you do is go to class and, along with a teacher, analyze a small excerpt, say a page or so, from a book. I mean "analyze" of course, not in the sense of "examine methodically and in detail for the purpose of explanation and interpretation." No no, not in the sense of "literary analysis" I mean "analyze" in the sense of "resolve a sentence into its grammatical elements," or, more succinctly, "parse." This in mind, it could be argued that you are not even required to actually read anything.

So what? Well, the only purpose of studying a language - or speaking a language, for that matter - is for communication, and one studies a foreign language to open new paths and modes of communication unavailable in one's native tongue. This communication is either verbal or written, so we are either talking to one another in another language, or we are reading something written in another language.

I love speaking Japanese. To me, there is a vast difference between what I can say and how I speak in English versus Japanese (not just related to my linguistic insufficiences in Japanese or over-efficiencies in English) It's fascinating, and a hell of a lot of fun to talk to people in Japanese and come to see the differences in the languages and how they both control and sometimes constrain how we communicate.

I love Japanese literature. That was, of course, the whole reason I started learning Japanese in the first place; I wanted to read some of my favorite novels in the original language. At UCLA, I read those novels, modern work and poetry, and even learned Classical Japanese (kind of like Middle English to Modern English) so I could read poems more than a thousand years old. I found that any translation of the work was a pale copy stripped of much of what made it "literature" in the first place, especially between languages so disparate. Haiku in English are a joke:

Ancient pond/Frog jumps in/Sound of water

It's crap, right? Yet this is a famous, great poem in Japanese. Now imagine Shakespeare translated into a language without definite or indefinite articles, or translating Salinger into a language without sarcasm.

As I think I've said many times before though, Japanese schools don't emphasize speaking at all. Everything is geared towards preparation for entrance examinations that test only obscure grammar knowledge, and so teachers just hammer home lessons on syntax and vocabulary. In a way, it's fortunate that they just teach grammar points though, because they usually can't speak English. Even the best teachers rarely speak better English than I do Japanese, and they've got at least 10 years on me.

So most teachers are dismal speakers, of course partly because they are products of the same educational system, but also because they don't try to improve their English. They don't actually try to speak English with others, because they don't seem to see the point. If they were sincerely interested in communicating, they'd be better at it. But then again, to really know the benefit, you'd have to actually speak with others. And these same people who don't enjoy speaking English also don't enjoy reading English.

So what can you possibly get out of a foreign language like English, if you don't want to speak or read it? What pleasure can you get from NOT being able to communicate your feelings or understand those of others? What new worlds or modes of thought can be opened by NOT ever reading anything the way it was written? Well, succinctly, you get NOTHING.

And so, we have a system full of teachers who don't even appreciate the whole point of learning a language teaching a bunch of people who are instinctively prone to not appreciating the point of learning anything; ie: teenagers. How can these sort of teachers ever impart any meaning to the study if they themselves cannot recognize the value? Why should their students, how could their students be expected to care about the subject if none of the teachers do?

Well, they can't. And all signs suggest that they don't.

Despite a kind of national past-time of studying English, nobody I've met looks back on their high school classes fondly. I gave a survey to all 400 first-year students this year and the last, and in response to the question "do you like English class?" more than 60% answer "No." Seeing as the students handed in these surveys to me personally with their names attached, I'd venture to say that some were too timid to be honest, so the actual number of students who don't enjoy English is probably above 80%. The reasons are fairly constant; the grammar doesn't make sense, there are too many words, spelling is too difficult. Certainly, these things are true, but should they be reason alone to hate a language?

But what reasons are there for them to like the language? I can't blame my students for not caring, because I'd hate English too if I were them, and I certainly never would have studied Japanese if someone who doesn't speak, read, or enjoy the language had purported to teach me.


Anonymous said...

You are a liar. You didn't study Japanese because you love Japanese literature. C'mon buddy, your love of all things was kindered by the great James Clavell. You'll always be building that boat Anjin-san.

Luke said...

Clavell was definitely the reason I first became interested in Japan in the first place, but reading Japanese literature is why I wanted to study the language. After all, one doesn't have to understand Japanese language or even have a particularly accurate view of history to appreciate Clavell.

moiji said...

here here!