My career as a Japanese teacher began when I entered the United States. I was a graduate student, and was given an opportunity to teach Japanese classes at the university level. The class I taught first was Introductory Japanese, in which students started learning the pronunciation of each letter of the “Hiragana” alphabet, followed by intermediate classes. I also tutored a very advanced-level class where students read and discussed Japanese newspaper articles. Through interacting with students of/at different levels, I realized that students whose Japanese sounded natural not only had plenty of Japanese language knowledge but also applied specific Japanese conversational styles, such as asking for the listener’s agreement to their speech using “ne” (similar to “right?” in English), speaking in relation to the previous speaker and frequently nodding to show they were listening to the speaker. When I was having conversations with those students, I felt as if I was speaking to people who grew up with Japanese. On the other hand, students who lacked those Japanese conversational techniques always reminded me that they were learners of Japanese, as the conversation with them was unnatural most of the time.
Many studies have shown that those specific Japanese conversational manners were created because of social and cultural factors in Japan, such as being group-oriented and cooperatively minded. That is, experiencing these Japanese socio-cultural norms must be the foundation to understanding and acquiring preferred conversational patterns in Japanese.
I believe any language has its own communicational style. If you have taught your native language in other countries, you may have noticed that conversational competence does not merely consist of language knowledge. Teaching grammar and vocabulary is, of course, indispensable for learners to be able to use the language; however, we should not forget that introducing our socio-cultural norms is also an important and necessary element in language classes.
The question is how do we teach it in class?
Have you studied a foreign language? Could you share your experiences of how you learned the socio-cultural standards of the language? Are you a foreign language teacher? How have you been teaching this to students?