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The Japanese Language Program at Amherst
Among the numerous exciting courses on Japan offered at Amherst College, this page concentrates on the Japanese language courses. If you are interested in learning about any aspects of Japan (e.g. arts, culture, philosophy, religion, literature), you will soon find that knowing the language is one of the most important tools for real understanding of these areas. As cognitive scientists claim, language is the mirror of the mind. Without an understanding of the mind of the people who produce the arts, write the books, or pursue the philosophical thinking, you are not likely to grasp the essence of these activities and productions.
You may have heard various myths about the Japanese language: “It is an impossible language to learn;” “It will take ages to master this language;” “Japanese is ‘the devil’s language’.” We have certainly heard them all. But let us assure you that they are indeed myths. Japanese is not an impossible language to learn. It will not take ages to master the language. And it is hardly the devil's language.
Or, you may shy away from taking Japanese at college because you believe you are “not good at memorization.” Learning the Japanese language, however, has very little to do with the memorization skill — at least not at Amherst. Everyone has an active and creative mind. We do not want to limit and waste this wonderful ability of your mind by having you memorize endless Japanese phrases and sentences without comprehending why things are the way they are. Memorizing phrases and sentences without studying the logic behind them may work for a short period of time, if you wish to get by in Japan for a few days as a tourist. Language learning at the college level, however, should be and is something richer. Learning a foreign language involves understanding the logic that underlies the thinking of the people who speak the language. In learning the Japanese language, you learn the language-specific logic of the Japanese language, which is quite different from that of the English language. You will soon learn that the logic you use in speaking and writing English cannot be relied upon very long in trying to speak and write Japanese. Therefore, learning why the Japanese express things the way they do is the first step in learning this language. In learning a foreign language, you are in fact learning the building blocks of the entire cognitive and logical structure of that language. Of course, you will have to memorize words and some expressions in Japanese, just as you do in your own native language. But to learn even a word requires the understanding of the facts that surround this word and its implications. You will find that there is no great burden of memorization when you learn the reason or the logic behind the words or sentences that you are learning.
There are a couple of thousand characters you will need to learn in order to be “literate” in Japanese, but this, too, must be approached in the most logical way. You will, in fact, be discouraged from any attempt to memorize these characters without comprehending why each character has the form and sounds it does. The ways these characters have been built up are very logical and systematic. This logic is what you will learn, rather than the mere shapes of the characters.
Let me illustrate how possible it is to learn this language at a high proficiency level by looking at what some graduates who have studied Japanese at Amherst have done in the past. A great number of them go to Japan soon after they graduate. It is, in fact, not an exaggeration to say that most students who have finished the intermediate and advanced levels of Japanese here at Amherst have then gone to Japan (often for the second or third time) through various means: the Fulbright scholarship, the Mombusho scholarship (the Japanese government scholarship), the Amherst-Doshisha Fellowship, the JET (Japanese Educational Training) Program Fellowship, or others. Some graduates have gone on to work in Japanese companies and others to work in small towns in Japan; some have gone on to Japanese schools to polish their language skills. After that, many return to America to pursue graduate degrees specializing in Japanese, economics, politics, fine arts, literature, and many other fields. Still others have chosen medical or law schools. The examples are too numerous to list individually here.
Our goal is to educate students in the program so that they can function properly in both spoken and written Japanese. Imagine how limited you would be if you lacked the knowledge of written Japanese after taking Japanese for years at college. Unless students see the entirety of the Japanese language, that is, both the spoken and written languages, they cannot say that they have studied the Japanese language in its fullest sense.
Whenever possible, we make every effort to show students the whole schematic picture, e.g. the structure of the Japanese language, relevant information of words, relevant cultural notes, differences between speaking and writing, the writing systems of Japanese, and Kanji (the characters) before introducing specifics. We also believe that the four skills (speaking, listening, reading, and writing) are not separate: improvement in one involves the others, and in turn fosters further improvement in them. We therefore place emphasis on teaching these four skills in an integrated manner: New material introduced in each class is learned using all four skills.
It has been claimed many times that the written system of Japanese is the chief obstacle in the acquisition of the language. This claim almost always refers to the number of characters to be learned, and the multiple readings assigned to single characters in current Japanese. We believe, however, that the Japanese writing system is an integral part of the language, and that knowledge of the characters, especially in meaning contexts, in fact fosters all four skills, not merely reading and writing.
Instructional Method—the Stage-Step Method
We teach both spoken and written Japanese to the students whose goal is to achieve a high proficiency level. We teach all four skills -- speaking, reading, writing, and listening. Our teaching method puts a great deal of emphasis on building a solid foundation, so that the students will be able to build upon this foundation with success. It is designed to inculcate an awareness of the systems and principles of structures, vocabulary, conversation, and the written language. It is essential to understand how parts are put together, both at the sentence and discourse levels, because such understanding provides the foundation for learning how to speak, read, write, and listen meaningfully, and this knowledge gives the students the ability to be independent learners.
At the same time, being aware of principles or understanding grammar alone is not sufficient to achieve a high proficiency level in Japanese. To reach the automatic level of each skill, practicing and overpracticing are essential.
Over the past years, we have developed a teaching and learning method called the Stage-Step Method. Our textbook series consists of four stages. Stage One introduces most of the basic Japanese structures. Stage Two introduces complex structures, which are constructed by combining many of the basic elements introduced in Stage One. In this stage, therefore, there will be some repetition from Stage One. This kind of repetition is quite important in fostering a fuller and more complete grasp of grammatical notions. In Stage Three, structures that contain similar expressions with finer meaning differences are introduced. Understanding the differences of similar expressions adds sophistication to the use of Japanese.
Learning skills of any sort includes multiple tasks. Learning Japanese is the same. Doing many things at the same time is difficult, especially in the beginning stage. Because of this, each practice is separated into three different steps. We do small group activities to practice interactive aspects of learning. These three steps are: (1) new structures and new words (using the structures mastered); (2) speaking and listening; (3) written language.