Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Lingua Franca?

While a student, I had the opportunity to study in Japan for a year. I got to live with a Japanese family, learn the language, and attend a Japanese university for the third year of my degree, and it was definitely an interesting experience.

As a result, I've always found it interesting to see the interaction between the Japanese and English languages in Japan. For those of you who know about the language, Japanese has words known as "loan words." Basically, words from other languages that have been adopted into the Japanese language, and adapted to the Japanese phonetics. Whether this is apato (apartment building), depato (department store) or pan (bread, from the Portuguese), they've been modified from the original pronunciation. Hell, even McDonald's can be a mouthful (Makudonarudo).

So, seeing this article in the Daily Yomiuri, I found it an interesting look at the goals behind teaching English (or any foreign language).

I think the author is on to something. Unless you are a translator, learning a language should be about communication, not being able "to speak like a textbook."

This is something that isn't only present in Japan, but everywhere multiple languages might be used. I live in Ottawa, which has a large bilingual population, from both French and English backrounds. I hear stories of friends who speak French very well, but because they made a small error in their speaking (used the wrong term, or a slightly wrong verb conjugation) when dealing with a sales clerk, the clerk suddenly switches to English. Now, this isn't always a bad thing, if the clerk is happy to work in both languages, then great. However, some clerks almost seem to get angry about being "forced" to work in another language (which they also speak fluently).

Now, I'm coming to the kind of cliche question, why can't we all just get along? But seriously, if someone is trying to make an effort to communicate in a language, why don't people accept that effort and work with them. Why get mad at having to switch to another language just because they perhaps aren't fortunate enough to speak more than one language? Or why ignore their efforts just because its not perfect?

This is especially important for people who start learning languages later in life, or who may not have a chance to live in an immersive environment, or who may not have a natural aptitude for other languages. If one does understand multiple languages, why not try to communicate. I know I've had conversations in English, French, and Japanese where neither of us spoke the other's language fluently, but through meeting in the middle, we could communicate.

In summary, I guess it comes down to two points. For our language instructors, let's also make sure we're focusing on the day to day communications, not just conjugating verbs or using the past perfect tense, and for those of us who do speak more than one language, let's give people a chance, we could all use the practice!

I guess this post is part rant, part discussion. What do you all think? Chime in on the comments, let me know your thoughts regarding the end goal of language instruction/learning and multi-lingual communication.


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