Japanese in Three Easy Steps

Learning a second language is never easy. It’s doubly difficult when there are three separate writing systems and a set of alphabetical characters that are completely foreign to you. Add to that the cultural aspects of language usage and learning Japanese becomes a seemingly daunting task.

Dr Abby McMeekin, however, is hoping to make this process a whole lot easier for her students, as she strives to determinethe best ways to learn Japanese by integrating a variety of learning strategies in the classroom. Abby began her university career at Morningside College in Iowa, earning a Bachelor of Science degree with a major in Biology and a minor in Asian Studies. From there, she then went on to earn a Master’s degree in Japanese Pedagogy at the University of Iowa before earning her PhD in Japanese Language and Linguistics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

In 2007, Abby joined the University of Lethbridge as an Assistant Professor of Japanese in the Modern Languages Department, after spending thirteen years teaching at the University of Hawaii. She is the only faculty member in her department conducting classroom-based research, which focuses on several key topics relating to learning Japanese, such as Kanji learning strategies.

“Kanji are Chinese characters used in the Japanese writing system,” explains Abby. “This past semester, I studied the effectiveness of different strategies for learning Kanji in the classroom.” Kanji characters contain three elements: orthographic (shape), phonetic (sound), and semantic (meaning). Students are frequently taught the orthographic and phonetic elements of a Kanji character, but they aren’t always taught the details of semantic elements.

For example, the Kanji character for the word “spring” is comprised of three symbols: the symbol for “three,” the symbol for “people,” and the symbol for “sun.” Put together, you can think of it as “three people under the sun,” which in turn means “spring.”

These ortho-semantic elements can be exceptionally useful in the understanding of Kanji characters. Abby decided to introduce semantic elements in her classes when she noticed that some of her students were struggling with Kanji. “Students who incorporated all three types of elements into their learning strategies scored best on the post-test,” she says.

A new area of interest for Abby is computerassisted language learning. In a classroom environment, students might use web-based exercises, YouTube videos, or computer programs to help them learn the language. “What tools are available? How effective are they? Do they really help with things like reading comprehension and sociolinguistic competence? These are the types of questions I’d like to answer,” she explains. Ultimately, Abby aims to determine what tools work best for students who use computer-assisted learning to learn a second language, as this hasn’t been looked at in Japanese as much as it has with other languages.

Abby is also planning to conduct research on Japanese second language pragmatics. “Pragmatics is basically how to speak appropriately in a language. You can be grammatically correct, but pragmatically inappropriate within the context of the language and the culture. Pragmatics isn’t taught much in the classroom, especially in the case of Japanese.” She plans to look at one particular pragmatic area of Japanese (e.g. making requests), teach this in the classroom, then look at the different stages learning and assess how effective the instruction is.

“Appropriateness is a very important part of the Japanese language,” she explains. “While English is fairly flexible, Japanese is quite rigid in this respect. Surprisingly, pragmatics is often ignored in textbooks. One example is the use of the words ‘I’ and ‘you.’ These words are usually dropped from Japanese speech as they are considered unnecessary and inappropriate. However, in many textbooks, ‘I’ and ‘you’ are frequently used in sentences to teach students Japanese!”

Abby’s research has significant applications in the classroom. “As a teacher, it’s important to know what the most effective teaching methods are. It’s beneficial to try different strategies in order to see how students learn best.”

There are, of course, applications outside of the classroom. Learning the Japanese language more effectively will help students to communicate more appropriately and efficiently with native speakers, whether they are travelling to Japan, making international business deals with Japanese companies, or interacting with our eminent Japanese community right here in Lethbridge.