Learning Japanese in Florida in three years, and why it could be even faster

I just came back from a Golden Week vacation in South Florida, which is the closest thing to a “hometown” that I have. I spent my teenage years in Broward County, just north of Miami, and skipped town after high school to go to an upstate university. My parents moved out of town not too long after that, so now my time in school there is my only connection to the area.

On the long flight to Atlanta I finished watching Season 4 of The Wire (a show which comes up often in comment threads here). Season 4 focuses on a Baltimore middle school and examines the dysfunctional aspects of public education which leave many kids clueless and drive many other kids into a life of crime or destitution. One of the threads in its plot involves an ex-cop and a group of Johns Hopkins researchers who move a group of “troubled” kids out of regular classes and into a special classroom where they get more attention, which has its most noticeable effect on the regular classes — which suddenly become pretty orderly and conducive to learning, rather than total madhouses.

This was timely because I had just made arrangements to visit Hallandale High School, where I spent my sophomore and senior years of high school (before and after my year in Osaka). Hallandale is a bog-standard public high school, in the middle of what counts as “the ghetto” in Florida, and which is mainly notable for having a well-equipped TV studio and a large foreign language program. It is one of only a handful of Florida high schools which offer Japanese classes — and four full years’ worth of Japanese at that.

In my day, over a decade ago, Japanese was taught by a Chiba-native art teacher who was much more interested in art than in language teaching. Although there were four separate levels, all four levels were taught at the same time in the same classroom, which was primarily an art classroom. There was not enough demand to actually have separate class blocks for separate levels. When I returned from Osaka, I enrolled in Japanese IV, where my only classmate was an exchange student from Tokyo, and our main duty was to tutor the lower-level kids in basic vocabulary and writing kana. Japanese was often described as the most difficult class in the entire school: part of this obviously had to do with the difficulty of the language itself, but the relative lack of teacher guidance (since she was dealing with four levels at once) and the cruddy textbooks and materials didn’t help either.

Given this history, I was a bit surprised to discover that there are now three completely separate Japanese classes at Hallandale, that Japanese IV is now an Advanced Placement class (meaning that students can take an exam at the end to claim university credits), and that while our teacher is still teaching art, all of her language teaching responsibilities have been taken over by a newly-hired language teacher who is half-Japanese and splits her time between teaching Japanese and English.

My wife and I spoke to the first two classes, comprised of first and second-year students. At the start of each class, we introduced ourselves in Japanese, and I then asked the kids to tell me what we had just said. They got tiny bits and pieces, like our names, but that was about it. Then they took turns struggling to introduce themselves in Japanese using simple fill-in-the-blank sentences (“namae wa ________ desu. shumi wa ________ desu.“) and then did some exercises in writing hiragana where they were struggling to recall the characters. Nobody knew how to assemble a basic sentence on their own. Keep in mind that this was during Golden Week, so the American school year was almost over.

The kids in these classes were quite varied in their backgrounds and motivations. There were more than a few self-proclaimed otaku who wanted to learn Japanese because of their interest in anime and video games. There were a few kids who chose Japanese because they were interested in street racing and liked the movie Tokyo Drift (no accounting for taste, I guess). One was pursuing a career as a graphic artist and wanted to live in Japan “because they are the leaders in graphic arts.” Another had grown up as an Air Force brat in Okinawa and wanted to learn more about the side of Japan he had missed as a child.

Both classes were full of energy but highly disorganized. As each kid got up to introduce themselves in Japanese, their peers wasted no time in heckling their mistakes, putting words in their mouth and generally vying for the class’s attention. The teacher could only maintain the flow of the class by shouting over the shouts of the kids. My wife, whose only familiarity with American high schools came from watching 90210, was both fascinated and horrified by the scene.

We then went down the hallway to the third-year section, which also contained a handful of fourth-year students studying for the AP exam. The students were silent as soon as the teacher called for order, and again my wife and I did our introductions. This time, the kids understood everything. They introduced themselves relatively flawlessly, and were then asked to write down a list of questions to ask us in Japanese. Their questions were grammatically well-constructed even though they were working “on the fly” in the middle of class, and when we answered them with descriptions of our working environments, our lifestyle in Tokyo and our traveling experiences, the students still understood nearly everything.

We were both amazed. Here was a room of kids who had never been to Japan, who were only a year or two ahead of the kids who were absolutely hopeless in Japanese, and yet they spoke Japanese nearly as well as I spoke it after a year in a Japanese high school.

What happened?

When we mentioned this to the teacher, she explained that two years of a foreign language are now required in order to graduate from Hallandale High. The result of this requirement is that first and second-year foreign language classes are filled with kids who have no particular want or need for a foreign language. Many don’t pay attention, and this distracts the other kids so much that they can’t effectively learn — even the otaku among those kids weren’t even minimally proficient. The third and fourth-year classes don’t have this problem; the only kids in them are the kids who really want to learn Japanese, and they study and practice it with each other like crazy.

Thinking back, this was also the case in my high school in Osaka. Everyone had to take lots of English classes in order to graduate, but almost none of them were really interested, and the few kids who actually were interested had no outlet for their energy. I have always rolled my eyes at the idea that Japanese people will speak better English if they just start earlier–not a chance. Japanese people speak better English when they want to, and when they are surrounded by people who want to. As long as English is simply treated as a universal requirement, everyone will study it and nobody will really learn it.

23 thoughts on “Learning Japanese in Florida in three years, and why it could be even faster”

  1. Very interesting post (and isn’t The Wire awesome?)

    Streaming and small groups are the secrets to student success. This is realized at the university level – where elite students end up in honors classes of 10-15, while others can graduate without ever seeing a lecture with fewer than 100 students.

    Japan would do well to identify 10-15 students in a high school class and have them do their English in an advanced translation / conversation intensive format. Offering optional, but funded, summer English intensive courses for achievers would also be great.

  2. The other thing about compulsory English education is that it increases demand for competent teachers–both in terms of classroom management and actual English ability. Thus even the kids who want to learn often get saddled with a teacher who can’t speak English and can’t keep unruly elements in check.

  3. As brutally undemocratic as this may sound (or maybe it has a democratic dimension if it is strongly merit based) the system of education that we have now was designed in the 19th century to create an obediently socialized populace who could be good industrial laborers (this was quite explicit in education debates in Britain and Japan). Part of the motive for teaching people to read was so they could understand written orders if drafted. It was assumed that the upper class educational infrastructure would keep creating elites as it always had while the proles could be made more useful. In the 21st century, economies need a core of elite thinkers / content producers at the top of the pyramid (Steve Jobs, Miyamoto Shigeru, Pixar people), a managerial class to run the system, and a large number of people to work retail and service. The structure of the economy makes its own case for streaming in education. The “everyone needs to speak English” model is based on 19th century ideas of teaching / standardizing national languages to make citizens more useful. Getting rid of it could reduce class mobility, but it could also make education less alienating and more useful to the large number of Japanese who do not imagine themselves as active cosmopolitans.

  4. “Japanese people speak better English when they want to, and when they are surrounded by people who want to.”

    Exactly, which is both why Europeans surrounded by so many other nationalities learn so many languages, and why Japanese who speak English without awkwardness, and Gaijin who speak Japanese reasonably well, have clearly been shtupping each other.

  5. Joe:
    From what I’ve heard, foreign language instruction in Asia depends a lot on rote memorization. If so, it offers an additional reason why the interested students do better (their attempts to speak with each other are probably much better for actually learning). It also suggests that a curriculum reform might close the gap between interested and not, a bit anyways.

    I’m also curious what you mean by starting earlier. Are people proposing middle school instead of high? Elementary school? Kindergarten?

    To what extent do after-school clubs do just that? At the very least, I would think they’d give school officials a means of picking out that percentage of the student body that would benefit from further instruction (Who cares enough to show up and practice on other students?).

    Mr. S:
    There’s a lot of minorities in Japan who speak other languages (Ainu, Ryukyu islanders, immigrants and expats). If the political willpower was there, could that be used to achieve the same effect in the areas where they concentrate?

  6. Great post. I like the Japanese-style structure to the writing, by which we have no idea what the conclusion is until the end.

    A decade ago, a friend commented to me that 80% of Japan’s economy was domestic. The country therefore needed 20% of the population to be fluent in English to handle the international business of the economy. Instead, the education system had produced graduates who spoke English to about a 20% level.

  7. “To what extent do after-school clubs do just that?”

    Japanese after-school clubs are an all in proposition – you might have someone who is into shodo or baseball and they would have to pick that at the expense of English.

  8. Well said M-Bone.
    But it is terribly undemocratic to say so, so it’ll never be changed. We all have the vote= we all do the same forever. That’s why people insist on going to crap universities where they learn nothing. They “deserve” to be college graduates.

  9. My pet theory is that japanese language and culture is so damn complex and overbearing that most people just don´t have time or energy to learn a foreign culture. And the structure of the language is also very different, so it doesn´t come easy.

    I´m fluent, so its not myself complaining. But I think its fact it takes far more effort to be an average japanese than to be an average american.

  10. I taught English to Japanese university students in Japan study fine arts. I was a nightmare. Students sleeping in class, listening to their iPods, refusing to participate. I tried so many was to get them involved. They just didn’t want to learn or study because learning English wasn’t relevant to them.
    As for learning Japanese, an understanding of Japanese culture and how they communicate can really make a different. Japanese is taught as this very polite structure language, but most of the time Japanese don’t speak this way. They do in certain social situations, but most of the time the language is blunt, in direct and vague.

  11. “so it’ll never be changed”

    The French system (which is a disaster for other reasons) is a bit like what I described. If there is resistance in Japan, I don’t think that it will be from the electorate, it will probably be institutional – school boards, the Ministry of Education, Science, Technology, and Like Five or Six Other Things, and English teachers.

    “They “deserve” to be college graduates.”

    That’s part of it. However, middling colleges will always enroll well, even at high tuition levels for two other reasons: they work like an “assimilated and ready for a job that requires a tie” rubber stamp for immigrants, and the middle class and aspiring-to-be middle class don’t necessarily think about learning – try telling Bobby and Jane that they can’t take take 5-7 years to play beer pong, do sexuality electives, hang out exclusively with other Americans during a term abroad, and throw up in Florida. The slightly better off also think that they owe their kids an MA in Etruscan Semiotics.

  12. “try telling Bobby and Jane that they can’t take take 5-7 years to play beer pong”

    Well eventually they will stop being able to afford it.
    And even if their parents can pay for it, paying to waste 5 years of youth is the shortest way to downward mobility. And that sucks even worse than working straight out of high school.

    Btw I always hear that the German system is more stratified and there´s more technical education through high-school and non university pathways. I wonder what makes Hans and Matilda not feel entitled to play beer pong until unemployable.

  13. “I wonder what makes Hans and Matilda not feel entitled to play beer pong until unemployable.”

    Their popular culture isn’t an extended ad for the undergrad experience.

    “Well eventually they will stop being able to afford it.”

    Student loans. And as we’ve seen in past discussions with the law school bubble and PhD bubble – people don’t pay attention to the “only a tiny few will get the good jobs” because everyone assumes that they will be one of the tiny few.

    University jobs have never been more rare, and PhD admissions never higher.

  14. Well student loans are a very particularly american phenomenon, is everyone able to pay them off? If you can’t get a good job isn’t it a horrible drag? Its bad enough to lose 5 years of youthful energy and intelectual plasticity, adding tens of thousands in cash debt looks like hell to me.

    And how is German popular culture different? All the German’s I’ve met were pretty standard european cool fellas. More serious and level-headed than most, though. They do feel trustworthy.

  15. Youthful energy and intellectual plasticity only look good in retrospect. What looks good in the near future? Cheerleaders (or football players), kegs, and so on.

    I’m not as familiar with the arse end of German popular culture as I am with American, but I can’t imagine that it has Spring Break, sorority, and beer bong images to anywhere near the same degree.

    The people that I know watch Jersey Shore (not college, but fairly typical of what people want from college partying, I think) as some kind of cultural anthropological experiment, but I don’t doubt that many US teens watch and can’t wait to get out of Stumblebub, Idaho and spend a few years exactly like that.

    I think that lots of American kids up being told that drinking is sin and make up for lost time in college. Is it simply stereotyping to think that French, Italians, and Germans grow up with a more healthy attitude toward the drink and thus don’t feel the need to brag about how many times they threw up or tell stories about waking up in a dumpster with no recollection of the night before as if it was something laudable?

  16. The thing is, most of Europe has the same problem as the US or Japan, namely that there’s too many college graduates ill-equipped to a real life job, who have lost 5 years in useless universities teaching nothing else but to feel entitled to a high paying job, because they´re “college graduates”.

    Germany is pretty unique in that fewer people go to college, more to other technical training. Those end up as factory workers at Siemens, BMW et al.

    The US college lifestyle is way more fun and exciting, yet the problem is similar in Japan, with no sororities or Spring Break semi-orgies in Florida. At most is 合コン with some 女子大生 and getting wasted at a サークル飲み会. Yet college attendance rate is 50%, a big part of it to Fラン universities where students learn less than they would staying at home reading 2chan. Which many ended up reading 24/7 when they find themselves unemployable after graduation.

    BTW the UK has an as big, or bigger problem with alcohol than the US. For all I know it may be a genetic predisposition to alcoholism.

  17. Another problem, however, is that while going to college doesn’t guarantee a good job, not going pretty much guarantees no good job.

    Obviously people who apprentice as a plumber are different – but hasn’t the home renovation and building industry been the single hardest hit in the US during the recession? That whole vocational area is no longer a magic bullet either.

    Essentially, the US, Japan, and similar economies have, as I mentioned above, a few elite knowledge industry people, a managerial class, and a whole mess of minimum wage retail and service jobs. The college degree isn’t a ticket for a good job, but it puts you in the draw.

    In addition, most people don’t really think about how much economic activity all of the wasteful spending related to college engenders some cities in the US have 100,000 plus students to support the local economy – people who overwhelmingly spend and don’t take up jobs off campus. That’s a lot of kegs.

    Finally, the current US solution is by far the worst imaginable – online universities: huge debt, low standards, minuscule evidence of skill retention. At least if you go brick and mortar you get to party and talk to your profs about movies and stuff.

  18. The US has a much more complicated education system than many people realize. A few other key components:

    (1) The military, probably the largest “trade school” in the whole country. Yes, some folks join just to carry a gun around and shoot people, but you will also find that a huge number of American pilots, mechanics, medical personnel, cooks, cops, firemen, welders, translators and even teachers and lawyers learned their skills in one of the armed forces. Unlike Germany, this system exists alongside the university system; a person can go to the military before college (GI Bill), during college (service academies) or after college (ROTC).

    (2) Community colleges. Cheap, reasonably useful education with no barriers to entry, available in most cities, and a gateway to a bachelor’s degree for people who didn’t or couldn’t do it straight out of high school.

    (3) If you plan to stay in the same region where you grew up, going to a local college or university is largely a means of meeting other people who will give you career boosts later. I started working on political campaigns while I was at a state university in Florida, and ran into several fellow alumni who instantly put me on their “nice” list as soon as they heard that we went to the same university, and these folks gave me a number of tips and job leads thereafter.

    (4) The US has a much more ad-hoc employment system than just about any other developed country. In Japan, 90% of companies get 90% of their employees through on-campus recruiting; in the US, it’s probably more like 20% getting 20%. The Japanese concept of hiring a person out of college to work for the company forever, without having a specific job in mind for them, would sound ridiculous to just about any American.

  19. In higher ed circles, the current community college landscape is widely considered to be a disaster, however. Completion rate for 2 year programs (the average) after 3 years is only 30% nationwide. Students are staying too long and taking on too much debt for questionable returns.

  20. True, but keep in mind that there is absolutely no barrier to entry. Chris Rock had the best succinct explanation:

    You know why they call it community college? ‘Cause anybody in the community can go. Crackhead, prostitute, drug dealer—come on in. Community college is like a disco with books. ‘Here’s ten dollars. I’m gonna get my learn on.’

    Given that fact, and the fact that many people are working on the side while they go, it’s pretty good that that many people see it through the end of their 2-year degree program in a reasonable timeframe.

  21. “Essentially, the US, Japan, and similar economies have, as I mentioned above, a few elite knowledge industry people, a managerial class, and a whole mess of minimum wage retail and service jobs. ”

    Come hither robots (‘A`)

  22. “Community college is like a disco with books.”

    Ha. I also think of that bit every time I hear “Community College”.

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