Late night language learning

It’s pretty hot and steamy in Tokyo at the moment, and Al Gore has guilted me into sleeping without air conditioning.  Or rather, attempting to sleep without air conditioning.  I try to put my insomnia on these occasions to good use, however, and turn to Japanese TV to keep training my ears to absorb language.

One of the staples of late-night Tokyo TV are language-learning shows.  As native English speakers, we’re quite spoiled in that we can visit most countries with the assumption that many signs will be bilingual and at least someone there will speak our language.  However, for a native Japanese speaker only knowing the language spoken on the Japanese islands, if you have even the smallest interest in communicating with people of other nationalities, some foreign language study is going to go a long way.

This means you’re going to see many more people studying foreign languages (mainly business English) on the train in Tokyo than you will in most English-speaking countries.  While I’m of course biased, language shows aren’t as dominated by English as I had expected.  Russian, French, Italian, German, Korean and Mandarin shows can all be found channel surfing on most nights.

The formula for low-budget language-learning shows seems pretty well-established.  Ingredients:

  • middle-aged Japanese guy with thick head of hair as host;
  • very cute but clueless-acting starlet to act as the learner’s proxy;
  • older, academic-looking guy (always with gray hair, always in a lab coat for some reason) to explain the finer points of the language as needed;
  • native speaker of the language in question, who usually also has decent Japanese.

So, why does the foreigner need command of Japanese on a foreign language show?  Because a surprising amount of the show’s content will be in Japanese – usually more than the amount of the language being studied. This was surprising to me, since all the Japanese schools I’ve attended to date take the full immersion route (i.e. no English) from day one.  Even a high-level English learning show I saw explaining how to talk about things like prevailing economic conditions and mergers and acquisitions was about 60% Japanese, 40% English.

By chance, I did see a language learning show this week that broke this mold in a particularly interesting way.  Starting off conventionally, it was a French learning show with an attractive native speaker who also spoke decent Japanese:

Along with this guy wearing a beret so you know you’re studying French:

Once the native French speaker had finished explaining a point, a panel of young (and needless to say, cute and seemingly clueless) girls have to pick and attempt to read out loud (in French, naturally) the action they’d like an on-hand Frenchman to do.  The twist is that only one of the choices is a thing you would want, like a present.  The other two are humiliations.  Below, choice 1 is “Please wrap a stocking around my head.”  Choice 2 is “Please wrap this as a present for me”.  Choice 3 is…

“Please hit me in the face with a pie”.

Now that’s a good motivation to study: avoiding public humiliation.

Honestly, I didn’t know how effective this was as a learning device – it seemed that the girls were more or less picking randomly.  The French guy played his role to the hilt: being very French and doing what was asked with a sense of smug bastardry, like rifling though the girls’ bags when they unwittingly asked him to do so.

Well, I’m writing this post for the very insomnia-related reasons I was talking about to begin with.  It’s just gone 1am and I’m watching the 8th hour of a 26-hour telethon, which seems to have abandoned the use of a script or any pre-planned ideas between midnight and 8am.  Two guys are just sitting around a table (and horrors, casually lighting up cigarettes on live TV), having a grand old time amusing themselves. I think I’ll go and quickly read some global warming skeptics’ op-ed pieces and flimsily rationalise cranking up the AC to 11 and getting some sleep instead.


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