Today, one of my advanced and highly motivated students embarked with me on his first foray into Japanese literature: we started reading the short story 「神様」 (“Kamisama,” or “God”), by Hiromi Kawakami. It’s the second time I’ve taught this story, which features a walk to the river with a delightfully polite bear.
It was hard work for him, of course, and it introduced a lot of new grammar his formal textbooks hadn’t covered. This particular student prefers non-fiction to fiction in English, so I’d warned him ahead of time that he might find it frustrating, but over a three-week holiday break he got through the first page just fine. I thought things were going pretty well until he said, “I don’t see how this is helping me speak Japanese.”
I was flabbergasted for a moment. In my head I heard the question, What good is literature? But I’ve always been a voracious reader of fiction—it’s never occurred to me to question literature’s usefulness. For me, and for many of my friends, being able to read foreign literature is one of the goals of learning a language. But today, for the first time, I personally witnessed the proof of the theory that you don’t need to care about literature to be passionate about learning a language.
In which case, what good is literature, to the language learner whose interests lie elsewhere?
My answer to my student was that studying this story would help his listening comprehension by introducing him to speech that people use in conversation or on TV, and he’ll now notice them using it and know what it’s doing. And I 100% believe that’s true. I also believe that literature, along with comic books and television, tells you how people actually speak in a way that textbooks don’t. But now that I’m not on the spot anymore, I think there’s more to it than that.
Literature is also good for us so that we don’t fall into ruts. When you’re speaking a language you didn’t learn as a child, it’s dreadfully easy to find yourself recycling the same limited phrases or constructions over and over. Even I find myself sometimes latching on to phrases and developing speech tics I have to force myself to shake off. You see, it’s easy to only use a small portion of what you actually know. To become repetitive, because (1) learning takes repeated practice, and (2) traditional textbooks won’t expose you to anything outside the box.
Fiction is usually where we find the most creative use of language, where authors actively try to put words together in provocative ways. I submit that whatever your level of enjoyment, literature can’t help but expose you to new patterns and new expressions. And so I think that literature can help us go beyond functional into articulate.
What do you think? Have stories been useful to you?
**Yes, in addition to my full-time and freelance translating, I also tutor in the Japanese language. It’s pretty fun. Feel absolutely free to question my work/life balance skills, though.