Reviving literature

The trend today is to teach and learn only the practical. Does this spell the end for the teaching of literature in the langauge classroom?

My teacher in my teaching materials class made a comment about how one of his colleagues is lamenting the lack of literature in langauge teaching today. With the emphasis now on communicative grammar, poetry, short stories and novels have all but disappeared from the langauge classroom.

But only as recent as fifteen years ago it was still different. During my undergraduate years I studied Japanese. It was expected that one studied Japanese literature. It was not because literature would help directly with communication, but rather we were reading what the Japanese were reading. It is was this kind of authenticity which helped us understand the Japanese and their culture. Certainly my Japanese vocabulary is better for it today than if I did not read Japanese novels. Where else would come across words teppatsu (elms bowl for Buddhists teaching exchange for food) or learn about sabi (rusticness. But it means much more than this and as an Japanese cultural aesthetic, inseparable from their identity).

Literature therefore teaches you more than language. It teaches about culture also. And in some ways langauge is culture. How else would I learn these things except for novels. While in this age of fast pace and quick and efficient solutions I still believe the quality of learning gained from just a few pages of hard and studious translation is worth more than, say, a week in Japan observing only and trying to find hints of meanings from gestures and practices. I feel books – any books in the target language – are undervalued as a resource. Books need not be especially designed for language to be useful. If anything they are better because they are authentic.

But coming back to the language teaching, textbook writers and publishers highlight this point. For if ordinary books are seen as good as (or better than) specific-purpose textbooks then these publishers’ and writers’ potential market to sell becomes smaller. In other words there is a hidden agenda to the reasons to promote textbooks in this way.

Twenty years ago still we saw literature as an important part of language learning. But communication was also taught if we were to go into the real world and mingle with real Japanese. However, today you can talk to a non-native speaker of Japanese and he or she will almost know or say nothing of Japanese culture or literature, but talk only about her or his country or about his or her opinion. If this is what internationalization means then I do not want to be part of it.

Since literature is still being read widely today it is not that troubling. Sooner or later the pendulum will swing back and literature will once again become fashionable, that is, until it is overdone, again. Remember this: trends are so predictable in this way, and how we teach is also nothing but a trend.

1 thought on “Reviving literature”

  1. Learning Spanish helped me better my own personal English skills. Still, I only managed a B at best on my essays. If it weren’t for my senior year high school English teacher, my freshman/sophomore college English profesor, and a few friends, my essays would still suck. Of course, what I am writing now is in informal english, :P.


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