By: Francis Guese
20% of North America’s citizens are bilingual. So it’s not a surprise that people want to learn other languages. The reason is that different languages are very closely tied to their cultures.
But for those looking to start can find themselves at an impasse. There are some words that don’t translate well or have no English equivalent. The reason is that different languages are very closely tied to their cultures.
When it comes to a language like Japanese, an exceptionally difficult language to learn for English speakers, the cultural differences between Japan and North America can have a big impact on how well and how fast someone can start speaking and understanding.
“I think it’s important to make sure you have a decent understanding of the culture and many of the nuances of the language just start to make sense,” said Eric Stewart, recently appointed president of the Japanese Language and Culture Club at UNLV.
There are a lot of media you can consume when learning a language: watching movies, TV shows, looking up articles and blogs online, or using apps like Duolingo. But speaking and interacting with real-life native and learning speakers can make the process easier.
That is what the Japanese Language and Culture Club (JLCC) tries to do in their meetings. “First we do a presentation on something related to Japanese culture or something that has to do with current events,” Stewart explains they go over topics like calligraphy or Japanese comedy shows. “Then we try to do an activity that’s centered around the presentation.” This includes activities like writing practice or watching the shows themselves. He wants to create an environment where students can learn more about Japanese culture and pick up pointers for the language.
Stewart said that the Japanese language classes at UNLV only have one to two-page sections on culture. He wants the club to expand on those little notes in order to provide context to what the students are learning.
“With Japan being a very high context culture, there are some verbal cues you may not pick up that are very essential to understanding just the context of the situation.” For example, speaking respectfully to elders can be an entirely separate language from the base Japanese.
I asked Stewart if their club expects their members to know Japanese. He said that it is open to anyone interested in Japanese and that most of their members are JPN 113-213 level which is elementary.
Stewart remarked that their club, for the past two years, has been more of a social club. But with him as the president of the club, he looks towards changing that and interacting more with the Japanese community like having more native speakers for members to learn from.
“The opportunity to practice Japanese outside of the classroom is not that large.”
As president, there are a few things that Stewart does for the club. “My rule comes down to two things mostly one, reaching out to different organizations and trying to plan things,” Stewart said. When the club has outings to restaurants or karaoke, his job is to contact those places and make sure event goes smoothly. “I also primarily do the planning for the presentation.”
The club is also accommodating for people with no experience with Japanese, having romaji, or English-characters on their slides and pairing them up with more experienced speakers.
There is only so much Stewart can do during his time at JLCC. But there are three big things he believes the club has in store for them. One of the goals is to attract more Japanese students on campus to have more practice for the members. A bigger membership means more opportunities for funding. Second, is to plan events outside of campus like “Little Tokyo” in California. Lastly, is to get Japanese officials in the Las Vegas area to come and talk about their work experience.
While coronavirus has suspended all activities on campus, once it opens up again, the club is sure to continue. Stewart’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org and the Facebook page can be found here. Check out the club if you are interested in learning about Japanese culture.