Wako Tawa

“I am a rebel,” says Wako Tawa, who has taught Japanese at Amherst for 35 years, since there were only 20 female faculty members on staff and only men’s bathrooms in her building: “I had to put a sign on the door that said, ‘IN USE!’” So it’s fair to say that her rebellious spirit has deep roots. But right now Tawa, the Willem Schupf Professor in Asian Languages and Civilizations and Director of Language Study, is referring to her award-winning approach to teaching language and, more specifically, to her lack of fear around that dreaded word: grammar. “I am such a rebel that I put the word in the title of my textbooks!” She motions to one volume in her Japanese Stage-Step Course series titled, appropriately, The Grammar Textbook. The titles are simple, but Tawa’s thoughts on teaching foreign languages are complex. We sat down in her office, where she hung a similar in-use sign on the door (“My students will just walk in otherwise!”), and graciously offered me some of her wisdom on the subject.  

Q: What is lacking in how we have historically taught foreign languages to native English speakers?

A: We can’t really talk about teaching without understanding how human beings learn. The biggest issue is ignoring individual differences, because it’s a very complex process. They have to understand it conceptually, but they also have to learn four different skills: speaking, listening, reading and writing. And, unfortunately, each skill does not transfer to the other. 

Q: Can you summarize your stage-step technique?  

A: I see a forced dichotomy in the field: Do we teach communication or do we teach grammar? That either/or question, to me, doesn't make sense at all. It's both, right? Because communication is possible only when the listener and speaker share common abstract rules. Many educators are not really defining what grammar is. Grammar is everything. It’s not just verb forms and structure; it’s usage that makes communication possible. Even if a student is able to create a perfect sentence, if that perfect sentence is used in the wrong situation, it’s not right.

The stage-step technique is breaking down learning foreign languages into the conceptual part and the skills part—the stages being about concept and the steps being about skill. We target each specific skill—reading, writing, listening, speaking—under the umbrella of a certain stage of conceptualization. But classroom teaching is very limited. No matter how great a textbook is, what’s useful to Student A may not be useful to Student B, so another goal of the stage-step technique is to teach them metacognition. Learning a foreign language is forever. We teach them how to study and how to learn on their own. Teachers are not information providers; we’re facilitators of learning.

Q: Japanese is considered a “Category IV” language. What does that mean?  

A: Twenty or thirty years ago, the Foreign Service Institute (a division of the U.S. State Department) categorized languages into four groups—“one” being the easiest to learn, “four” being the hardest. That terminology is confusing because it’s not referring to absolute difficulty. It’s measuring the distance between English and the target language. For example, their research found a Category I language (Spanish, French, Swedish) took 600–750 class hours to learn, while a Category IV language (Japanese, Chinese, Arabic) took 2200 hours. 

When it comes to your native language, grammar is something you understand and do automatically. When we’re very young, we learn simply by being spoken to, but we lose that ability after a certain age. For a college student who’s never heard Japanese, it requires a more elaborate system. 

Grammar equals rules, and rules have such a bad image. But we are operating under rules. Without them, we can’t communicate. Grammar is the nitty gritty but it also encompasses the bigger picture—let’s redefine it.