#2. Learning Japanese in Hawaii
by Jayna Tokie Tanaka
One of the first things students learn when they register for classes at college is that they are expected to take a foreign language. Although the most popular languages at colleges in other states were French, Spanish, and German, reflecting the European heritage of early American immigrants, Hawaii’s mix of ethnic groups, with Asians comprising the largest group for many years, meant that a large number of students chose to study Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. It was also a time in the U.S. when curiosity about the “East” was creating interest in Asian religion, history, and arts. There were the Beatles talking about zen and using Asian musical instruments. The words samurai and ninja appeared in English dictionaries, and there were the many remakes of Akira Kurosawa films. The Asian language boom was beginning, and I was among the first students to be a part of this boom.
The textbook we used for our Elementary Japanese 101 course was Learn Japanese: Pattern Approach by John Young and Kimiko Nakajima-Okano. As the title suggests, the main emphasis of this book was to present Japanese sentence patterns, which were to be memorized, in order to produce more of the same kind of sentences to fit different situations. In order to do this, the students had to understand the “structure” of a sentence and be able to relate it to other “structures” through a process of “transformation.” For example, in the first part of the book, the pattern introduced used the word e (へ) with the verbs for “go,” “come,” and “go home.” The first sentence with this pattern was 神田へ行きます. It was written in romaji as Kanda e ikimasu. From this basic pattern it was possible for the native-speaker assistant to drill the students using “transformation.” The assistant would speak the first sentence and ask us to repeat it. Then he would say, “ka?” We were then expected to say, “Kanda e ikimasu ka?” In this way, we had “transformed” a declarative sentence into an interrogatory one. The assistant might then change the noun and say “uchi,” and we would say, “Uchi e ikimasu ka?” Next, the assistant might then change the verb, and we would understand that this pattern could be used with other verbs as well. In this seemingly simple task of repeating and substituting, we were on our way to collecting “pattern sentences,” which would allow us to have simple conversations by the end of a year.
The drills we did in class did not end there. Another essential part of this Japanese course was spending time in the language laboratory. Tapes with the same kind of drills we had done in class were available there to borrow. In order to ascertain that students had done the drills outside of class, we had to sign in and out every time we used the “lab.” For some students, this may have been a boring thirty or forty minutes, but for me, it was a very profitable time. I could hear myself trying to pronounce words exactly as the native speaker on the tape was saying them. I think the time I spent concentrating on making exact copies of these native speakers contributed to my ability to speak with less of an American accent than many.
I will probably never forget this first Japanese language course. I still remember wondering where in the world “Kanda” was and why someone would want to go there. In an age without the Internet, it took me a little longer than it would now to understand why the place was so important. Of course, the teachers and assistants added more familiar place names like Waikiki and Downtown, so that helped fix the patterns in our brains.
For your reference:
1. John Young, Kimiko Nakajima-Okano, Learn Japanese: Pattern Approach, vol. 1-4, University College, University of Maryland, 1968.
2. John Young, Kimiko Nakajima-Okano, Learn Japanese: New College Text, vol. 1-4, University of Hawaii Press, 1985. (The first series of textbooks was revised and is still available online.)
Jayna Tokie Tanaka（ジェイナ・トキエ・タナカ）