Suggestions on Vocabulary Learning for Japanese Learners of Communicative English
5. Aug. 1997 Katsuhiko Nakagawa
Adoption of Communicative English and Problems Involved in Terms of Vocabulary
Gradually, English education in Japan has been becoming more and more communication-oriented. In high school, three oral communication courses, respectively aimed at acquiring skills in daily conversation, listening and debate, were recently implemented in the Courses of Study, the national curriculum designed by the Ministry of Education, as a follow-up to the introduction of the JET program. The combination of the JET program and the new courses allows for many opportunities to learn with native speakers. Japanese teachers of English find themselves in the middle of this major transition, not quite confident of how to organize communicative English classes. The reform is only its incipient stages and there is still much remaining to be revised. In this paper, several suggestions will be made regarding communicative English vocabulary, and a way to seek it.
In most cases, Japanese English learners' (JELs') vocabulary is somehow distorted. Quite a few words indispensable in basic communication, seem to be lacking in the lexical storage in the JELs' mind. This fact can be observed in both sending and receiving messages. Although such words as 'yum' and 'yuck' are often used by native speakers, they are unlikely to be understood by JFLs. At the same time, there seem to be certain words existing in their mind, which native speakers might consider rather obsolete (e.g. 'plateau', 'pious' etc.). Simple pieces of information may sometimes fail to be sent because of this lack of fundamental lexical knowledge. Thus the lack of vocabulary can be a fatal flaw in a JFL's communicative English skills. How does this ignorance take place?
Process of Average JELs' Acquiring Vocabulary
In order to suggest remedies in the distorted JEL's mental lexicon, analysis of their vocabulary range is essential. The following are typical steps through which average JELs acquire a certain range of vocabulary.
According to Courses of Study, the size of vocabulary which should be attained by a JEL is approximately 3000 words by the end of secondary education level. This range is acquired by only motivated hard workers, the vast majority of whom study English with the aim of going on to tertiary education level. Most colleges require a much larger vocabulary ― around 4000 words on average. This extra vocabulary is usually obtained through bilingual word list or materials used in trial examinations specifically designed for college entrance examinations. Out of these 4000 words, about 1200 are learned at junior high school, and they are quite similar, if not the same, to the most basic 1000 words in Thorndike's limited word list (e.g. 'visit', 'animal', 'before' etc.).
Most of the next 1800 words are learned through authorized high school textbooks and can be divided into two categories. One category is classified as fundamental vocabulary which follow the most basic 1200 words acquired at junior high school (e.g. 'notion', 'inquire', 'humid' etc.). The other category has a wide range of vocabulary, some of which can hardly be understood by even well-educated adult native speakers. Others are the ones less difficult but still not to be considered basic (e.g. 'contour', 'poultry', 'consternation', etc. ). Words belonging to this category are often employed in a specific area or situation, and in many cases they function as key words (e.g. 'iridium', 'Jurassic' in the story on extinction of dinosaurs). Which of these words is likely to appear in textbooks mainly depends on the topic. Consequently, words in this group, will be largely varied according to the individual and textbooks used in class.
The next 1000 words are those often used in college entrance examinations. A variety of bilingual word lists are available which contain words frequently found in entrance examinations for tertiary education. Many of the words have abstract meanings. They are often used by intellectuals in dealing with various issues in the modern world (e.g. 'radioactive contamination', 'patriotism', etc.). Short essays on such topics are the most popular material for entrance examinations.
After acquiring various level of vocabulary via these steps: junior high school, high school, and the entrance exam preparation. It is generally a proven fact that this acquired vocabulary is not very useful for the JEL in terms of 'real' communication.
Analysis of a Typical JEL's Vocabulary
What are the characteristics of an average JEL's 'distorted' vocabulary? What are the symptoms, and how bad are they? They following are several categories of words which tend to be lacking in an average JEL's mental lexicon.
A) Words Based on Culture
Some words are frequently used in one culture while they don't even have equivalents in another. This happens because of differences in life style. (e.g. 'souvlaki', 'Good Friday', 'genuflect', etc.).
B) Words which can be paraphrased into simpler expressions
Usually, English words have several synonyms. Words which have technically the same meaning may have very different connotations. Eventually, subtle but significant differences among them create minute nuances and often fail to convey the speaker's true feelings. (e.g. 'strange', 'unique', 'bizarre', 'weird', 'eccentric', etc.).
C) Words in daily life
There seem to be many words unlikely to be known by JELs which are necessary in daily life. This deficiency is due to the lack of learning daily conversation or everyday words. (e.g. 'faucet', 'measles', 'dandruff', etc.).
D) Words with several meanings
JELs do know the word 'tear' has more than one meaning just because this word often appears in entrance examinations There are plenty of words which have unexpected meanings. Sad but true, most of them have received little attention in the existing English educational system in Japan. Many of them are slang or colloquial expressions. (e.g. 'studied', 'paging', 'belting', etc.).
E) Words necessary in explaining Japanese culture
As English education in Japan has long focused on receiving information. JELs sometimes have difficulty in explaining their own culture because of the ignorance of proper words. Words in this group are critical as Japan continues to educate her younger generations to become more internationalized. (e.g. 'blowfish', 'chrysanthemum', etc.).
The Purpose of Consulting Children's Writings
An average 6-year-old native English speaker is said to have around 10,000 words stored in his/her mind. About 2500 words are gained in each following year until their vocabulary reaches a certain level. Considering that most of the vocabulary is not active (used for sending mesages), but passive (used only for receiving messages); words actively used by young native speakers. The writings were collected through the Internet or at primary and secondary schools in Melbourne. The words or expressions which appeared in the writings are classified according to the above-mentioned categories of A to D. Most of them are unlikely to be found in textbooks currently used in Japan.
9 year old female scurry(B) odds and ends(D) guardian angel(A)
9 year old male blurry(B) infection(C) belch(C) barf(C)
10 year old female fluff-covered(B) wiggle(B) blast(D) nerdy(B) enchant(B)
mound(C) hideous(B) creepy(B) shriek out of horror(B)
mess(B) have a crush on(D) a chill run up my spine(B)
11 year old female limo(A) It dawned on me that(B) anonymous(C) flaw(B)
12 year old male coffin(C) commemorate(B)
12 year old female cliff(C) splat(B)
Suggestions on Remedies
How can a 'distorted' JEL's mental lexicon be corrected? Here are some suggestions regarding pragmatic remedies to be used by instructors. Some of them can be adopted as a warm-up activity; others require outside class work.
A) Children's books
It is generally believed that teenagers should read books suitable to their maturity level. It is true that many children's books cannot capture a teenager's attention, but some books May be found readable for even adults. Children's books are replete with everyday vocabulary, and usually not too complicated in structure or grammar. By reading the books, students can learn more than simple facts in the story. Morals and cultural background are always included in them.
B) Authentic materials
Books are not the only material for language learning. Materials such as songs or advertisements will provide a number of words used in the real world. However, instructors need to be careful in deciding which should be used in class. Not all songs or advertisements are educational.
C) Collecting neglected words
Instructors can provide opportunities for the students to collect daily words the English equivalents of which they do not know. Many words can be collected if students find a few words each. There will be a large collection of words at the end of the school term.
D) Writing on Japanese culture
Writing an essay is now becoming a popular assignment in Japanese schools. Explaining things on Japanese culture will be interesting and challenging for students.
In Japan, language education has been rather like a process of acquiring skills to deal with difficult and complicated matters. It may be compared to solving math problems. Learning words, especially easy daily words, are undervalued, since they are not necessary when we talk about philosophy or international politics. But, in fact, vocabulary is the basis of language learning, and in the real communication, the things people talk about are not always such difficult matters. All teachers have to realize the necessity of more communicative vocabuilding.