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Culture and Education

Popularity of Spanish Surges among University Students! Why Spanish?
Why You Should Learn It: The Significance of Foreign Language Study

Yusuke Goto
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

The landscape of “second foreign language" education (education in foreign languages other than English) is undergoing a dramatic transformation in Japanese universities. With a relative increase in the number of students taking Chinese and Spanish classes, Chinese and Spanish are taking the place of the once-mainstream German and French. Chinese has especially grown in popularity and now attracts the greatest number of students at most universities.

The number of students taking Spanish has steadily increased, if not to the same extent as Chinese. The Spanish language boom is said to have started when the Olympics were held in Barcelona, Spain in 1992. Thus, if Madrid, the capital of Spain, had been selected as the host city for the 2020 Olympics instead of Tokyo, there may have been a second Spanish boom… Such is the bitter lament of a Spanish teacher. But even from a broader perspective unrelated to Spanish, I don't think this is the right time for Japan to make an Olympic bid. To start with, we have not, by any means, overcome the radioactive contamination crisis following the 3/11 nuclear accident, contrary to the groundless conclusions and declarations of safety made by the last two prime ministers.

But I digress.

So Spanish has started gaining more attention, along with Chinese. But how do students choose a second foreign language in the first place? I imagine that, aside from cases where the choice is based on a specific pre-existing interest (with Spanish, this may be a love for soccer, a fascination with Spanish paintings, or an interest in folklore or the ancient Aztec or Inca civilizations, etc.), students fall into two main categories: those who choose from a “conventional" range of languages based on conventional wisdom and those who want to choose an “unconventional" language. In other words, the former are those who choose the traditional second foreign languages of German and French, and the latter are those who choose the rising languages of Chinese and Spanish.

Unfortunately, the crude criterion of “which language will be easy to learn" is also involved in the decision. In this regard, Chinese and Spanish seem to exude an aura that fuels students' speculations that Chinese “must be easy to learn because of the kanji" and Spanish “is easy to pronounce" (students who choose these languages later realize that learning them is not as easy as they thought). This is the reason for the further increase in students choosing Chinese and Spanish.

How then do students make the final choice between Chinese and Spanish? To put it simply, this choice seems to be determined by geographic “proximity." The Chinese-speaking world is definitely close to Japan, while the Spanish-speaking world—consisting of Spain and various Latin American countries—is far away—much too far away. This fact probably leads more students to choose Chinese.

Geographical “proximity," however, does not always correspond to psychological proximity (familiarity). Thus, whenever there is a negative event or incident in China or political or diplomatic conflict between China and Japan, the enthusiasm for Chinese seems to be easily dampened. At these times, Spanish is the “unconventional" option that remains through the process of elimination. This, combined with the thoughtless remarks and actions of our current prime minister that have needlessly provoked conflict with China and Korea, seems to explain the correlation between the recent decline in the number of students taking Chinese and the increasing trend (for unclear reasons) for students to take Spanish.

At any rate, the increase in students trying to learn Spanish is most welcome. You could also say that it is truly testing our ability as Spanish teachers to overcome the overwhelming “distance" that makes it hard for students to imagine a direct relationship between Japan and the Spanish-speaking world, and to convey the shape and appeal of this world through the Spanish language.

Thanks to the Internet, we can now access a truly vast amount of information from overseas in real-time. In that sense, physical “distance" no longer seems relevant. At the same time, however, there are growing concerns that what is distant from us may remain distant, forever kept in the position of “the other" due to this sense of omnipotence, so to speak, that we “can learn anything" without leaving Japan (or wherever you call home)—the sense that all we have to do is look up (!) what we need when we need it.

As I wrote in my book The Northwest of Language Study [Gogaku no Seihoku], “The experience itself of grappling with something as unintuitive as a foreign language" should lead (Japanese) language learners to “take a new look at ‘Japan,' a country we thought we knew so well" (p. 291). For example, learning Spanish not only draws students toward a world they were unaware of, turning it into a “distant but familiar" presence, but can also get them to relativize the “obviousness" of their own immediate, all-too-ordinary country and culture. We must patiently impress upon students the fact that these features of language learning are actually very important.

In conclusion, I have researched the current state of foreign language education in Japanese high schools for languages other than English. As in universities, Chinese offers the greatest number of courses in high schools, but the next largest share of courses goes to…Korean. No surprises there, seeing as China and Korea are neighboring countries of Japan. But why are there so few Korean courses and instructors at universities throughout Japan in comparison? To be frank, this is unusual, even bizarre. Universities need to learn from high schools. How can we egotistically brag about “taking back Japan" without respecting the languages and cultures of neighboring countries with which we have deep historical ties? Japan's recent relations with its neighboring countries are concerning even to a Spanish teacher like me.

Yusuke Goto
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

[Profile]
Professor Goto graduated in Spanish from the Faculty of Foreign Studies, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. He completed the coursework for the doctoral program at the Graduate School of Social Sciences, Hitotsubashi University but withdrew before receiving a degree. After working at the College of Literature, Aoyama Gakuin University, he assumed his current position in 2000. He studied abroad at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (Spanish: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú) from 1990 to 1991. In 2011, he became a visiting researcher at the Institute for Peruvian Studies (Spanish: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos). He specializes in the intellectual and cultural history of Latin America. He is the author of The Northwest of Language Study: South American and Japanese Cultural Patterns Viewed from the Window of Spanish [Gogaku no Seihoku: Supeingo no Mado kara Nagameta Nanbei Nihon Bunka Moyō] (Gendai Shokan), co-translator of Selected Works of José Martí 3: A Revolution of Harmonious Co-existence [José Martí Senshū 3: Kyōsei Suru Kakumei] (Nihon Keizai Hyoronsha), and the co-author of “The Current State and Outlook for Spanish Education in High Schools [Kōtō Gakkō ni okeru Supeingo Kyōiku no Genjō to Tembō]" (Waseda Review of Education 24(1)), among other publications.