5/4/16

owlectomy: A squashed panda sewing a squashed panda (Default)
One of the reasons Stephen Krashen criticizes learning foreign language grammar in discrete units -- this week we're learning the past tense, next week we're learning the imperfect -- is this idea that one set time frame is enough to teach you that bit of grammar that you're supposed to know. So if you don't understand it the first time around, you don't get another crack at it. If you get sick and miss a couple of classes, too bad!

In Japanese there's something called keigo, which includes all the special verb forms and conjugations that you use to make a phrase more humble or more respectful, which is used for speaking to clients, customers, your boss, your professor -- it depends on context, but essentially, anyone for whom regular standard politeness isn't quite polite enough. I was thinking just now about how bad my keigo skills are. And I realized just why that is.

The last time I was in a class that did any keigo was maybe 1999 or 2000. Japanese III or IV in high school. After that, I did Japanese III and IV in college - and weirdly, we didn't do any keigo in either one, maybe they do that in Japanese II? And I did a year abroad (during which we did no keigo -- it was something you were already supposed to know.) And I think that if you're seriously studying a foreign language the majority of your learning probably happens out of class time, but keigo's not the kind of thing that you get much exposure to by watching TV or reading books. Even if you're a native speaker, it's something you have to put deliberate time and effort into studying, which is why older people are continually lamenting the keigo of the young.

I was reading up on a foreign language approach called the Growing Participator Approach which focuses on acculturating learners into a speech community - where the syntax and vocabulary of a new language are only a small part of the whole package of cultural learning and identity negotiation that happen as you become part of a new community. And it seems to me that my keigo problem is the kind of thing that an approach like the GPA would tackle particularly well. In a traditional classroom setting, you can write business letters, you can roleplay being salespeople trying to sell each other widgets, or the kind of keigo that's used in shops and restaurants -- but I suspect that what really would have made a difference for me is what GPA refers to as 'language helpers/nurturers' (GPA doesn't use 'student/teacher' terminology for reasons that I find both pedagogically sound and charming) guiding me in sociocultural norms in real-life situations where keigo was called for, whether in talking to a professor or writing an email or that first time I went to McDonalds and the cashier said "Are you eating?" using the formal verb, and I was thinking, "Well, that's normally what you do with food..." (It turned out that 'omeshiagari desu ka?' means 'Is it for here?,' as opposed to takeout.)

Japanese people tend to be really reluctant to correct your politeness, though. It's hard to do without the implication of "You're being rude."

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