Literature, second language, authenticity, passion

I have fond memories of my undergraduate days as a Japanese major.

To me they were exciting times. The world was seemingly spinning at a furious pace. The people I met were doing things, going places. My future was ahead of me.

My future now, of course, is still ahead of me (metaphorically, can it be nothing other than ‘ahead’). But it is different, still exciting, perhaps a little more focused and a little less uncertain. Twenty years down the road and I have made more progress (alas! a little slower than I would have liked) towards my goal as an academic.

Back then I had wanted to teach Japanese literature. I had a passionate teacher of Japanese literature, someone of the old school. He was romantic and somewhat a pioneer. He was like a Lafcadio Hearn or a Donald Keene. We would read the standard writers, the likes of Soseki, Kawabata, Tanizaki. And we would read the major minors as well – Arishima Takeo, Yokomitsu Riichi, Kajii Motojiro. We would read poetry – another of his passions. We had read Feminist poetry – Shiraishi Kazuko, Tomioka Taeko, Ito Hiromi. We would read these for its literary content. The grammar was a means to an end. The literary message was the important thing.

He taught us to love literature, to love it for its own sake.

Fast forward to 2011, one of our young and talented Master’s students is writing her thesis on the use of literature in a second language classroom. Her argument is that we should include checklist questions which highlight the literary content. She feels that too much emphasis is placed on grammar, and this is evidenced by the lack of such focus in reading textbooks.

She is absolutely right.

But perhaps one of the main reasons for this is that a reading textbook is just that – it is a textbook.

I always remembered the feeling I would get from picking up the Arishima volume and thought I am reading what Japanese native speakers were reading. I felt I was becoming Japanese because it was a real, authentic book, one that can be bought in a Japanese bookstore, something readily available to the everyday Japanese person, something which can be selected by him and is selected by him for his reading pleasure. Equally, a Japanese person who would choose to read Arishima was someone I wanted to be. I wanted to be a discerning reader. In short, I had wanted to be a romantic, a Lafcadio Hearn. And the act of picking up an authentic volume of Arishima was an important part of the language and cultural experience for me.

But when literature ends up in a textbook for the study of language, that authenticity disappears. It no longer is reading for pleasure. It is reading material for grammar, for learning. The context becomes one of education and not passion. Literature was never intended to be used for language teaching. That was never the authors’ intention. But language can be learned from literature because it is a type of language use. It is authentic material. And people, other than the author, choose to use it for learning language. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But to forget its original purpose is to forget what language is for.

What is more important is, I think, that it is authentic passion. These are the sensibilities of a writer and it speaks volumes to the readers. By removing the cultural context by placing the content into a textbook we forget that it is a work of literature intended by the native writer to be read by native readers for pleasure. The simple fact that the work was in a bounded physical volume for sale to the Japanese general public – that it was a cultural object from a real physical Japan – made all the difference to my experience and attitude.

Published by

2 responses to “Literature, second language, authenticity, passion”

  1. Michael,
    ‘Positive’ is a good outcome. It is amazing how the context and authenticity of the actual material is presented in the classroom can make such a difference. Cheers.

    Btw, I like your blog. Will drop by soon and have a through read.


  2. I ran into this exact same situation in China, when I was teaching English. I could bring them the same material that was in their textbook, but the fact that it wasn’t in a textbook made them feel much more positive about it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: