International Opinion

Whither (not “Wither”) Japanese?

By Anthony Jackson — February 07, 2012 5 min read
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Global economic trends have far-reaching effects. For instance, the language learning decisions made by students and their families often have to do with perceptions of future employability. I’ve asked one of Asia Society’s resident polyglots, Chris Livaccari, to reflect on this trend and put it in context. What follows is his advice to schools and policymakers.

by Chris Livaccari

Japan bestrode the 1980s like an economic Colossus. As a student of the Chinese and Japanese languages in the early 1990s, I lived in the world of Japan as Number One, where business gurus promised to unravel the Enigma of Japanese Power—to cite the names of just two popular books of the day, the first written by Harvard professor Ezra Vogel in 1979 and the second by Dutch journalist Karel van Wolferen in 1989.

My first-year Japanese language class at Columbia University was filled with law, business, and engineering students looking for a leg up in a competitive and rapidly globalizing world where knowledge of the Japanese language was an asset. The classes were oversubscribed, and frequent visits by Japanese media to interview such luminaries as Donald Keene, the renowned translator of Japanese literature, confirmed Columbia’s status as a center for US-Japan cultural relations.

The Chinese classes were another world entirely—small and informal, I sat among a group of about 15 students, most of them heritage learners and American-born Chinese. The conventional wisdom seemed to be that the only good reason to study Chinese was to learn the language of one’s parents or grandparents.

My how the world has changed! Now it is the Chinese classes that are oversubscribed and Mandarin the language of choice for ambitious young MBAs, lawyers, and engineers. When you talk to parents or school districts about the “language of the future” these days, they are almost certain to identify Mandarin Chinese. And it’s probably no surprise that Ezra Vogel’s latest project is a long biography of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping!

According to the latest statistics from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, enrollment in Chinese language classes at K-12 public schools nationwide grew 200% between 2004 and 2008. For its part, Japanese grew by 17.5%, the largest gain for any language except Chinese.

Higher education shows a similar trend, with data from the Modern Language Association showing about a 51% increase in university-level Chinese language enrollments and about a 27.5% increase for Japanese from 2002 to 2009. According to these statistics, there are at least 150,000 learners of both Chinese and Japanese in the United States today.

These numbers are meager compared with Spanish or French enrollments. A 2010 report from the Center for Applied Linguistics that looks at foreign language enrollments over a longer period of time (the decade from 1997-2008) paints a less optimistic picture about the state of Japanese. That study indicates that Japanese enrollment has declined significantly at both the elementary and secondary levels—including a drop from 7% of U.S. secondary schools teaching Japanese to only 3%. Looked at from this perspective, it is clear that Japanese language enrollments in U.S. schools have declined from their high point in the 1980s and 1990s.

As a language educator (and not a political scientist or economist), my primary concern is that students are offered a high-quality, enriching, and yes, exciting, language learning experience. Quite frankly, I don’t care if it’s Hindi, Arabic, Swahili, or Dutch.

From one perspective, I think that the decrease in interest in Japanese language programs has been a good thing for Japanese language education. They’ve benefitted from a kind of social Darwinism in which the weakest perish and only the strong survive. As Chinese programs continue to grow, teachers and administrators should begin to contemplate a world in which China does not dominate. Programs need to focus more on the learning, and less on the Chinese. The bottom line is that language programs are easy to start and maintain when the language taught is making headlines. It’s when the attention fades that the true tests of program quality and sustainability emerge. It’s not that I am predicting that China will stumble (as I said, I’m not a political scientist or economist); I just want programs to focus on what’s most important—the teaching and learning.

I worry that we have become too focused on choosing the so-called most important language. On a panel discussion about the growth of Chinese internationally, I recently made some of these points. A fellow panelist—a Chinese professor working at a university in an English speaking country (not the U.S.)—responded that Chinese was inherently more beautiful and therefore ultimately superior to Japanese, and so there would be no chance of Chinese ever facing a decline! My head was spinning. It was made worse when, conversely, at a talk in Washington, DC, I described the inability of American education to embrace more than one Asian language at a time as an unfortunate choice between “cherry blossoms and pandas"; a member of the audience responded by saying that cherry blossoms were now native to the DC soil and that pandas were foreign beasts that could never be domesticated!

What should be a point of discourse and debate is what high-quality education in world languages should look like. In the case of Japanese, I am concerned about what The New York Times has recently dubbed “the myth of Japan’s failure.” Living in Tokyo from 1999-2002, I was supposed to be living in a Japan that was experiencing a serious economic downturn. The word of the day was ristora, the Japanese term for restructuring, downsizing, or laying off workers. But it was hard to acknowledge the reality of the recession when all you saw were young Japanese buying Prada bags and Armani suits—the bars, restaurants, bullet trains, and resort hotels were all teeming with people. According to the Times article (January 8, 2012), “by many measures, the Japanese economy has done very well during the so-called lost decades” and “by some of the most important measures, it has done a lot better than the United States.”

We as a nation should support strongly the growth of Chinese language programs; we will undoubtedly need many more Americans who can communicate effectively with China across many different fields. But we should do so as part of a broader initiative to promote a greater diversity of language offerings for American students, including Japanese, which is still the language of the world’s third largest economy.

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