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Why Study Japanese?

We study western civilizations to know our past but need to study non-western civilizations to know our future.”
--Ernest Boyer, former President, Carnegie Institute for the Advancement of Teaching


·  For American students who have never been exposed to non-Western cultures, the study of Japanese opens the door to Asia.

·  Studying a linguistically and culturally distant language like Japanese is especially likely to awaken in learners an understanding of the degree to which languages and cultures can vary and of what is distinctive about their own culture.

·  The unique features of the Japanese language and culture make it highly appealing, yet sometimes challenging, for students in the United States.

·  While studying Japanese, students develop the skills necessary to exist within a linguistic and cultural structure very different from their own. They gain access to the writing system, cultural practices, and expressive arts, as well as career opportunities available only to those who speak Japanese.

·  With the increasing global importance of Asia and the Pacific Rim, and the economic and strategic significance of the U.S.–Japan relationship, it is important that more Americans become proficient in Japanese.

·  Through learning Japanese, American students gain access to information available only in Japanese, increase our national level of understanding of Japan, and learn to better communicate a deeper knowledge of the United States to Japan.

·  The U.S., Japan, and Germany have the three largest economies in the world.

·  The importance of Japan in the global and Asian contexts means that knowledge of Japanese language and culture benefits not only those learners who will eventually become “Japan experts” but also those in a variety of different fields such as:

o       Business

o       Tourism

o       Journalism

o       Science and technology

o       The humanities

o       Social sciences

·  One of the most important things to keep in mind when considering Japanese language learning and teaching is the length of time it takes native speakers of English to achieve a high level of proficiency. The Foreign Service Institute of the State Department, for example, has set the normal training time for a Category 4 language like Japanese at eighty-eight weeks of full time study, as compared with only 24 weeks for Category 1 languages such as Spanish and French. Because of this, it is critical that those involved with Japanese programs not expect that students’ skills will advance at the same rate as those of students of many of the other languages taught in the United States.

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·  Why does Japanese take so much time to learn?

o       Both linguistically and culturally, it is very distant from English.

o       There are no cognate words in English and Japanese. (This is mitigated by the fact that there are large numbers of loaner words from English, and Japanese has a relatively simple sound system.)

o       The grammar of Japanese is extremely different from that of English.

o       Basic communicative functions such as requesting, disagreeing, and inviting are performed very differently in Japanese culture.

o       Merely translating American English interaction patterns into Japanese vocabulary and grammar does not result in acceptable Japanese communications.

o       The same basic content takes very different linguistic forms (or is not expressed at all) depending on social factors such as the gender, age, status, and closeness of the people speaking to each other.

o       The nature of the Japanese written language leads to its own set of challenges. In order to be able to read Japanese materials written for adult native speakers, students must learn two different syllabic writing systems and approximately 2000 Chinese characters (kanji), most of which have multiple meanings.

·  Given this situation, it is critical to establish longer sequences of learning and to hold high expectations for the achievement of Japanese learners. Students will benefit from the study of Japanese, given whatever amount of time they devote to learning the language, because they will also acquire basic language learning strategies, higher level thinking skills, and broader perspectives from their Japanese studies.


Compiled from the following sources:
1. Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century, “Standards for Japanese Language Learning, pages 328 – 332. The Allen Press, Lawrence, KS. 1999.