The Japanese writing system and the difficulties it poses for second language learners

This month we are publishing The Japanese Writing System by Heath Rose. In this post, Heath reveals how his own struggles with studying the written language inspired him to write the book.

The Japanese writing system has fascinated me since I first began learning it as a high school student in rural Australia. This captivation remained with me when I became a teacher of the language, and later as a researcher of it. However, my relationship with Japanese is somewhat multifarious; while I have always appreciated the beauty in its complexity, I can be simultaneously frustrated with it and enamoured of it. Still to this day, I do not know any other language that mixes so many types of scripts within a single writing system. Japanese consists of two phonetic scripts (hiragana and katakana) that represent syllables in the language, a character-based script (kanji) that represents meaning-based units, and an alphabetic script (Romaji).

When I first learned kanji, I found the writing system to be a great source of motivation to study. There was beauty in the physical form of the scripts and I could see progress being made in my learning of the hiragana and katakana scripts, and the first few hundred kanji. This motivation slowly dissipated in later years of study, as I realised that I needed to learn many more thousand kanji, which seemed to represent the language in a haphazard manner. A learner must know more than 2000 kanji to be literate in the language, and many more thousand to develop a high level of expertise in it. What was once a source of joy, had developed into a laborious task of memorization that extended over a decade of intensive study.

I was fortunate to be able to live in Japan for eleven years. While I saw my spoken Japanese improve effortlessly during this time, my written Japanese still required formal classes, and daily self-study. When I lacked the time to devote to reviewing kanji, my proficiency was adversely affected. At that time it dawned on me that the written Japanese language and the spoken Japanese language were completely separate beasts; it was possible to advance in one and decline in the other.

My interest, as a researcher of the processes by which second language learners acquire written Japanese, grew from my own struggles with learning the language. In my research, which spanned a decade, I discovered patterns in learning that were indicative of good and bad practices. Some successful learners applied strategies to memorize kanji, such as making associations with their shape, components, or meanings. However, I concluded there was no definitive “magic” strategy for success. Rather, successful learners tended to cope with the magnitude of learning via successful self-regulation of their learning goals, and their learning behaviours.

I sum up my research (and the research of other linguists) in my new book titled The Japanese Writing System: Challenges, Strategies and Self-regulation for Learning Kanji. In this book research is discussed in terms of their implications for second language learners, teachers and researchers alike.

For more information about this book, please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Second Language Writing Systems edited by Vivian Cook and Benedetta Bassetti. 

A Fresh Look at an Old Question: The Age Factor in a New Methodological Light

This month we’re publishing Beyond Age Effects in Instructional L2 Learning by Simone E. Pfenninger and David Singleton. In this post Simone and David discuss the controversial topic of the age factor in second language learning, as explored in their book.

Both of us – from the beginning of our respective careers – have been fascinated by the question of the age factor in second language learning. As we all know, this is a controversial topic; for example, the debate surrounding the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) has not gone away and is not likely to any time soon. There is, however, more consensus than many people realize between CPH sceptics (like Carmen Muñoz) and CPH advocates (such as Robert DeKeyser). The area in which this happy consensus reigns is that of the effects of an early start to L2 instruction in school, which most SLA researchers of all affiliations have for many decades agreed does not yield the advantage one might expect.

There is a sharp difference between the CPH debate and the discussion concerning the optimal age in a formal, educational context. Whereas the CPH question is interesting theoretically, the issue of the best age for starting a foreign language in school (to which, for various reasons, most CPH supporters these days see the critical period notion as irrelevant) is not just intellectually teasing but is also heavy with practical, socio-economic, political and ideological implications. Clearly, for educators, teachers and policy-makers it is of compelling interest to know more about the end state of foreign language instruction, since such research has important implications for multilingual education when making decisions about (1) early teaching of different languages in elementary school and (2) later instruction in different languages in secondary school.

Our book reports on some further long-term findings to this effect, which we explore and expatiate on in relation to a range of variables which, in the instructional context, turn out to be markedly more influential than age. We talk about recent developments and improvements in the methodological aspects of investigating individual difference variables such as age, as well as our observation that in the formal educational setting the age variable is overshadowed to the point of invisibility by other factors. Such factors include contextual effects (e.g. school effects and the transition from primary to secondary school), the effects of instruction-type and intensity of instruction, effects of extracurricular exposure, the influence of literacy and biliteracy skills, and the impact of socio-affective variables such as motivation. A role for starting age is in fact extremely hard to establish. With regard to the school situation, in other words, we can blithely put aside the maturational question, and all agree that when instruction happens is incomparably less important than how it proceeds and under what circumstances.

Actually such findings regarding the effects of early instruction go back a long way. Thus the idea of introducing L2 instruction into primary/elementary schools in the 1950s and 1960s was dealt a severe blow by the findings of research in the 1970s which cast doubt on the capacity of early instruction to deliver higher proficiency levels as compared with later instruction (e.g. Burstall, Jamieson, Cohen, & Hargreaves, 1975; Carroll, 1975; Oller & Nagato, 1974). The disillusionment occasioned by such findings seems, however, to have been rather short-lived, and more recent and continuing negative results in this connection have also been largely ignored. Our own endeavour has been (1) to try to convince the members of the general public that the time is ripe for closer integration between SLA research and L2 pedagogy and (2) to educate them about recent trends in the age factor tradition in SLA research. Our strong view is that consistent and intensive collaboration between practitioners, politicians and researchers is needed in order to understand and address mutual interests and concerns through shared discussions, data collection, analysis and interpretation.

For more information about this book, please see our website. If you liked this, you might also be interested in Key Topics in Second Language Acquisition by Vivian Cook and David Singleton and Future Research Directions for Applied Linguistics edited by Simone E. Pfenninger and Judit Navracsics.

EUROSLA Conference in York

EUROSLA Conference in York

The end of the summer is almost synonymous with the annual EUROSLA conference, and this year was no different. The conference moves around Europe, with recent previous conferences being held in the Netherlands, Poland and Sweden. This year the gathering headed to the UK where the conference was hosted by the University of York on its brand new campus.

The University of York Campus
The University of York Campus

As a graduate of the university I was especially happy to attend and was delighted to have the opportunity to revisit some of my favourite haunts. The conference venue is very new, and situated in still undeveloped green space, so it was interesting for me to see how the university has evolved since I left. The building was the perfect space for the conference and we publishers were situated in the entrance atrium with lovely views out to the lakes where numerous ducks and geese were enjoying a dip!

Conference Drinks Reception at the Yorkshire Museum
Conference Drinks Reception at the Yorkshire Museum

The programme consisted of the usual array of high quality posters, talks and plenaries on the many aspects of second language acquisition. We brought all the recent titles in our SLA series to the conference, as well as a few of our other related titles. Unsurprisingly, Vivian Cook and David Singleton’s new textbook Key Topics in Second Language Acquisition was the best-selling book, followed by Measuring L2 Proficiency edited by Pascale Leclercq, Amanda Edmonds and Heather Hilton.

As usual, the conference organisers also put on a fantastic social programme to match the academic one. The delegates enjoyed a drinks reception in the Yorkshire museum which is set in beautiful gardens. There, we were greeted by the Lord Mayor of York and listened to music from a cellist and jazz quartet; the music was so lively some of us were even tempted to dance! The dancing was an excellent warm up for the next evening.

Conference Dinner at the National Railway Museum in York
Conference Dinner at the National Railway Museum in York

The conference dinner was hosted by the National Railway Museum and we dined among a selection of fascinating trains, my favourites being Queen Victoria’s carriage and the post cart. After dinner a ceilidh (a traditional Scottish dance) was a fun way to end the evening. A few of us had rather sore feet the next day!

EUROSLA 2015 is to be in Aix-en-Provence in France – we are already looking forward to it!

Laura

Books, snakes and snacks aplenty – AILA 2014

This week saw Kim and Laura banished from the office. No, we weren’t sent to the other side of the world for bad behaviour but rather, we headed to Brisbane, Australia for the triennial AILA conference. With a theme of ‘One World, Many Languages’, we knew this would be a great conference for Multilingual Matters. AILA is always exciting for us, as so many of our authors and editors are in attendance. It’s a great opportunity to catch up with old friends as well as make new connections, and hear some fascinating papers.

Some wildlife enjoying our books!
Some wildlife enjoying our books!

The week started well, with strong sales and lots of interest in our new books, particularly Language Globalization and the Making of a Tanzanian Beauty Queen (Billings), Key Topics in Second Language Acquisition (Cook and Singleton) and Measuring L2 Proficiency (edited by Leclercq et al). We also got to meet a different type of delegate – the organisers had arranged for some local creatures to join us for the opening reception! We met snakes, a wombat, a kookaburra, a tortoise and a baby crocodile – some even seemed quite interested in our books.

Jan Blommaert's keynote
Jan Blommaert’s keynote

The conference was pretty busy all week so we didn’t get to many sessions, but those we did attend were high quality and very interesting. Of particular note were the keynotes by Lourdes Ortega, Elana Shohamy and Jan Blommaert, as well as the session on publishing by Mary Jane Curry, and the symposia on indigenous languages organised by Gillian Wigglesworth and Teresa McCarty. Jan had some particularly comical examples of lookalike language!

Brisbane by night
Brisbane by night

The Wednesday afternoon was a chance for everyone to take a breather, as it was a national holiday in Brisbane for their county show, known as the Ekka. We took the opportunity to explore some of Brisbane and had a lovely time doing the typical tourist attractions – we loved the Big Wheel and got a great view of the city. Back to the conference the next day and the stand was as popular as ever, with more animals to see including koalas, possums and a skink. Our best-sellers of the week really did sell well, with Identity and Language Learning (Norton), Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes (Blommaert) and A Scholar’s Guide to Getting Published in English (Curry & Lillis) taking the top spots.

We couldn’t possibly write a piece on this conference without mentioning the food. We’ve never been so well fed! The organisers truly laid on a feast every day, with cakes, pies and biscuits aplenty. Needless to say – the diet went out of the window for the duration of the conference!

Thanks Brisbane, not only for hosting a fabulous conference but also for showing us the very best of your city. We loved it! We’re already looking forward to the next AILA in Rio in 2017.

Double figures for MM Textbooks series!

Key Topics in Second Language AcquisitionNext month we are publishing Key Topics in Second Language Acquisition by Vivian Cook and David Singleton. This text provides an introduction to the most important topics in SLA research. This book marks the 10th in the MM Textbooks series which began with its first book in 2008.

The textbook series aims to bring the topics of our monograph series to a student audience. Written by experts in the field, the books are supervised by a team of world-leading scholars and evaluated by instructors before publication. Each text is student-focused, with suggestions for further reading and study questions leading to a deeper understanding of the subject.

We started the series off in 2008 with Allyson Jule’s A Beginner’s Guide to Language and Gender which gave students a broad introduction to the study of language and gender.

Next came textbooks on bilingual first language acquisition, multilingualism and literacy, sociolinguistics and the law and teaching languages online.

Merrill Swain, Penny Kinnear and Linda Steinman wrote the 7th textbook in the series, Sociocultural Theory in Second Language Education. Neomy Storch of the University of Melbourne calls their book “a most welcome addition to the growing literature on sociocultural theory” and “an accessible and highly engaging” introduction to the topic of sociocultural theory.

Judit Kormos and Anne Margaret Smith’s book Teaching Languages to Students with Specific Learning Differences aims to provide useful advice for language teachers working with students with various kinds of learning difficulties.

Spanish Speakers in the USA by Janet M. Fuller examines the issues of language, culture and identity for Spanish speakers in the US.

MM Textbooks

Key Topics in Second Language Acquisition is due to be published in early April. This and all our textbooks are available as inspection/desk copies and can be ordered on our website: http://www.multilingual-matters.com/about_inspection.asp.

The full list of books in the series is:
A Beginner’s Guide to Language and Gender by Allyson Jule
Bilingual First Language Acquisition by Annick De Houwer
Learning to be Literate by Viv Edwards
An Introduction to Bilingual Development by Annick De Houwer
Sociolinguistics and the Legal Process by Diana Eades
Teaching Languages Online by Carla Meskill and Natasha Anthony
Sociocultural Theory in Second Language Education by Merill Swain, Penny Kinnear and Linda Steinman
Teaching Languages to Students with Specific Learning Differences by Judit Kormos and Anne Margaret Smith
Spanish Speakers in the USA by Janet M. Fuller
Key Topics in Second Language Acquisition by Vivian Cook and David Singleton

If you are currently teaching a course and do not have an adequate textbook, please let us know at info@multilingual-matters.com and we will do our best to fill the gap.