Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

The #AuthRes Challenge in an Asian Language (Japanese)


HUsing authentic documents is key for many MFL teachers – and there are hashtags and pinterest boards aplenty for this. This has been a timely discussion on #langchat as well – and thanks to those like @sraspanglish who have curated these discussions. As for me I don’t use authentic documents as much as I do ‘authentic looking or derived’ documents. You may wonder why. I’ve always wanted to outline the challenge that my students, and I face in using most ‘created for native speaker’ documents.

3 Written Scripts:  Japanese learners must master 2 phonetic scripts (46 characters each)- one is ‘hiragana‘ for native Japanese words and the other, ‘katakana‘ for imported words/concepts (many English), onomatopoeia and scientific terms. My students typically master each in a few weeks and are comfortable using them very quickly.   However Japanese-learners also add in Chinese Kanji characters to replace words written in only in hiragana. You can think of it this way. If I read a word only written in hiragana phonetic script like かみ (kami) – it could be ‘paper’, a ‘god’ or ‘hair’. Context would be required to know for sure. When I learn the Kanji for the words – the meaning is there instantly for me ( 紙-paper 神-god 髪-hair). In total the ‘joyo’ kanji for a literate Japanese is 2,136 and isn’t covered fully until the end of Grade 9 – in Japan.  A typical student in Japan is not considered ‘literate’ until this time. My students cover 300-400 characters if they take classes up to the 4th year level.

The sample below is an indication of what a typical sentence might look like the one below – hiragana for ‘native’ words (blue), Chinese kanji (pink) and katakana for imported/foreign words (green). Students all have to learn to write all three types of script.

blog sample

Student Mix: My issue with authentic resources might not be so great were it not for the backgrounds of the students that I teach. 30-40% of my students are of some sort of Chinese-language heritage (Taiwan, China, Hong Kong) – they come as immigrants and generally understand  the meaning of any Kanji character (pink) in an authentic document – with no clue how to say it (and sometimes, the meaning is different in Chinese). 20-30% of my students are of Korean heritage – they understand the grammar easily (it’s like a French speaker taking Spanish) but need to learn the script (they’d instinctively know how the sentence above is put together). 20-30% of my students are of a different heritage – they understand the ‘foreign’ katakana words (green) the best – those  brought into Japanese using the script for import words/ideas and are pronounced almost like they are in the native language.  However these students  have no clue about any of the 1800+ Chinese characters we don’t study.

So…the issue in using authentic documents is both being able to read the different scripts and also equality of access. Students without a Chinese Kanji background would be at a disadvantage unless the document is altered to ensure that students only use what they know.  The sentence above, to be accessible and most of all ‘equitable’ to all my students would have to be rewritten as(note: in the sample the country has changed from Japan to China – both are understood by all students):


Yes we do use some authentic documents in class – but they are always used with the idea of fair access for all students – so that no one student has an innate advantage over another and really has to use the Target Language they have learned to access meaning. Its one of the challenges as a Japanese teacher – and a wrinkle my alphabet-using colleagues don’t need to deal with.

Before you throw your hands up at the perceived difficulty I should also tell you – there are over 15,000 ‘foreign’ words used in Japanese, sentence word order is not as ‘key’ as it is in other languages and we don’t have to conjugate verbs, use articles or know the ‘gender’ of a word…so it all works out in the end! The #authres challenge continues!



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