You Don’t Have A Foreign Language Problem, You Have An Adult Literacy Problem

This article is super long, so here’s a Cliff’s Notes. There’s a total of 3 parts.

Part 1 is a brief history of why people still talk smack about Sinoxenic (kanji-using) languages, leading to

Part 2 where we realize that when dealing with any language, Sinoxenic or otherwise, what we are dealing with is not a foreign language problem, but an adult illiteracy problem; finally, in

Part 3, we find that Pedro will make all your dreams come true, and also solve your adult illiteracy issues…

Pedro?

Part 1: Pens, Swords and Missionaries

Back in the day, the various nations of the western peninsula of the Eurasian landmass had just gotten done recovering from a massive thousand-year hangover after a drunken party in which they had destroyed their only stable nation-state, along with all its accumulated knowledge and human expertise, and proceeded to brutally brawl amongst themselves using weapons inspired by S&M movies.

Finally able to stand on their own feet, they set about sharing their extensive experience in violence with the world, with anyone and everyone they met. Theirs was a three-pronged approach, perhaps the most comprehensive offensive in human history, making use of the pen, the sword, and a cadre of highly trained psychologists called “missionaries”.

Before we get into all that: Kitten!

Kitten!
(Courtesy of Little Folks Puzzle)

The missionaries used a mind-control technique known as “Christianity” to tell people to give up on the real world, enjoy getting beaten with the S&M weapons (“turn the other cheek, be arch! God loves you, he loves you baby, yeeeah!!”), and pin all their hopes on a future world that, supposedly, existed after death. This future world was as idyllic as it was un-falsifiable, and worked well on the more trusting of foreign nations[1].

The pen was used both at home and abroad; at home to stir up xenophobia towards foreign peoples and their civilizations; abroad, to stir up autophobia (self-hate) among foreign peoples and their civilizations. And, when all else failed, the sword, in various forms, was applied generously.

It worked. And the world’s writing systems ended up like this:

Current Map of Writing Systems of the World

Everywhere the Europeans and their descendants visited, they stole, brainwashed, raped and murdered until they had forced their religion and writing system on their hosts. As fond of efficiency as of violence, they started to figure out just who and what needed to be killed in order to make the theft of land and people complete, a policy that might be described as “decapitation”: every society rests on the shoulders of a handful of people and/or texts, a “head” if you will; sever the head, and the “body” tends to be quite ineffectual.

Finally, to cover their tracks, they developed two intricate distribution systems: distribution (division) of labor, and distribution of responsibility. As such, they managed to commit atrocities using people who were not necessarily fully aware of the entire scheme, and then act as if it were “no one’s fault”. Puppets were attached by strings to other puppets in a nested chain of puppet-upon-puppet so long that it takes an enormous amount of work to find out just who, in fact, was the puppeteer. It was the perfect crime.

This same intricate labor-division-responsibility-dissipation system continues today, allowing Western societies to commit acts of violent cruelty both at home and abroad, and then shrug it off and act helpless.

Consider the steak. One person kills an animal inhumanely, another cuts up her body parts, another packs them, another ships them, another stocks them, another buys them, another cooks them, another eats them.

Are the people who ate the animal the murderers? The person who cooked the body parts? Or is it the person who bought the parts? The part-time worker at the supermarket who stocked them? The truckdriver who shipped them? The meatpacker who packed them? The guy who cut them up? The woman who pushed the button to stun the cow? The person who turned on the switch on the machine that, apparently quite frequently, pulls off cows’ body parts while they’re still alive? The person who wrote the design document for the machine? The editor who allows ads for the machine to run in his trade publication? The graphic designer who does the layout for the ad? The farmer who sent his cows to the slaughterhouse? The farmworker who, while the cow was alive, injected her with so many funky hormones that she could no longer stand up? The engineer who wrote the software that processes credit card transactions for meat purchases? The chemist who synthesized the hormones?

So, by now some may be wondering, does Khatzumoto hate “whitey”? No, Khatzumoto’s loves “whitey”; all his friends are “whitey”; Khatzumoto married “whitey”. A good number of Europeans and members of European-extension communities were either made unaware of what was happening, or bullied into acting unaware; it was all a well-orchestrated affair with many players — including psychos[2] for killing and stealing, academics for justifying[3] it all, and “settlers” for covering up the evidence by reproducing and generally playing dumb[4].

Now, as an Internet discussion gets longer, the probability that someone will refer to Hitler asymptotically approaches 1 — so let’s make our obligatory Nazi reference here. Ordinary German citizens were either unaware or forcibly “unaware” of the existence of…let’s just say “rustic accommodations out East” for Jewish Europeans. A good number of the German people were kept in forced ignorance (or sometimes, forced “ignorance”). A minority of ordinary Germans even stood up for justice.

At the same time, this does not erase a certain amount of responsibility, nor does it erase the existence of the “rustic accommodations”, nor does it erase the need to make these things known and repair them. Or, are you going to go up to Victor Frankl and say: “Dude, it couldn’t have been that bad — you got a book deal out of it and everything!! I like your hair, by the way — is it always curly like that?”

Anyway, bringing it back to language. Times have changed, but the writings from back when it was OK[5] to openly proclaim that Asian people and their civilizations were inferior, still exist. Many of them may be far too uncool or oldskool to be read now, but the memes they produced are still alive and well, repeated in subsequent pieces of research, and I use the word “research” in the loosest sense possible.

Take, for example, my history class at an accredited four-year institution of higher learning in a certain united state of America, where the instructor quite happily discussed — with visual aids — how ideograms (like kanji/hanzi) represented the lowest, dumbest, most “primitive” form of writing system and alphabets the highest, with syllabaries (like kana) and abjads (like Hebrew and Arabic), somewhere in the middle.

Kanji sucks, East Asian people are stupid drones who reproduce too much and all look alike and “the Chinese civilization has no creativity…but China is modernizing and in a few years may stop using [those ghastly squiggles]“. These were the exact words of my history instructor — the ones in quotes. Said many times, in front of hundreds of students. Some of them Chinese. You know those chinks…always getting straight A’s and taking all the scholarships that used to go to mediocre people like us. Wait…

A lot of the time, when people make claims about the Chinese writing system and Sinoxenic languages, they are merely parroting this kind of attitude, an attitude from the days of “gunboat diplomacy”, calling people “東亞病夫” (“the sick man of Asia”) and countless attempts to break up the Chinese state by stirring up ethnic division[6]. This has led to the ossification of the “kanji are hard”/”Chinese is hard” myth, a myth so often repeated that it is quite frequently taken as fact. This “fact” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, reinforced every time people come to learn Chinese and Japanese, and try to use their eyes, elbows and wrists[7] to learn kanji, and invariably fail, without ever trying to engage the old brain.

The key thing that many keep failing to realize is that learning kanji is an intellectual exercise, not a physical one. You need to use your brain, not yer wrists fer endlessly repeated writin’, not reams of paper fer copying out the same character a kajillion times, not yer mouth fer whinin’ out loud, not yer fingers fer rantin’ on Internet message boards, not even really yer eyes[8] fer seein’ a picture. It is not a test of brute strength; it merely requires a tiny bit of mental flexibility. And now, with an SRS, all you need is some consistency.

Wow, way too friggin long. Anyway. So, yeah, I came to this realization, with a lot of help and a lot of love from folks like Heisig, Sisk-Noguchi, Houser and Wozniak.

Speaking of the pen, one tactic of cultural genocide used by Europeans back in the day was to not only suggest that Europeans had trouble learning kanji, but that the original kanji-using peoples themselves could not use them. They assumed adult literacy in the Sinosphere to be low. Ironically, Japanese people to this day help keep perpetuating this myth. When you know kanji, Japanese people will tell you “wow, even I can’t write that”. This is called a compliment. They don’t mean it. They’re just being nice. They can write the durn kanji.

Indeed, over the past several months, I have challenged many of my Japanese acquaintances to little kanji tournaments. They have been able to write everything I have thrown them. The only way I have “won” is by lobbing ridiculously curvy curve balls (like “闖入”); the equivalent in English would be asking someone to spell and define “floccinaucinihilipilification”; of course you would “win” but for what? Also, every once in a while, on the news here in Japan, they show people talk about how “them young ‘uns nowadays with their computeys ain’t writin’ their kanjis no mar”. Wanna know why that’s on the news? Because it’s newsworthy. Most people are absolutely fine reading and writing their kanji.

Don’t believe me? Neither did General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, Knight Grand Cross of The Most Honourable Military Order of the Bath and Field Marshal of the Philippine Army, recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, husband to a murdered son, father to a murdered wife and he would have his vengeance in this life or the n…wait…

MacArthur, or “Biggie Mac”, as he was known to his friends, believed the Japanese people to be inferior, at a developmental stage analogous to that of a child when compared to the adult, fully grown “West”. And, as supreme military ruler of all the Japans, following that little worldwide scuffle in the 1940s, he was going to tell those slant-eyed beelzebubs who was boss. Effen Japs. In (this is the real deal, folks), one of his many orders to his Occupation Government, he decided that:

「言語というものは広大なる公道であって、決して障害物であってはならないのである。この世に永久の平和をもたらしたいと願う思慮深い人々は、場所を問わず男女を問わず、国家の孤立性と排他性の精神を支える言語的支柱を出来る限り崩し去る必要があるものと自覚している。ローマ字の採用は、国境を越えた知識や思想の伝達のために大きな貢献をすることになるであろう」8)

Translation: “Change to Roman script you bloody wogs or I shall drop another nuclear bomb on you. Also China, you’re next, motherlovers!” [Source Doc] [Quoted Here]

Of course, MacArthur was far too well-trained in hiding his true feelings[9] to actually come out and say something so gauche. Instead, he couches his words in appeals to “international communication”, “breaking down barriers” and “sharing ideas”. This is a fundamental technique found in the brainwashing carried out by colonial powers: religion or no religion, always appeal to universal principles[10]…as long as they’re our universal principles. Works every time. In fact, it’s so well phrased that I want my country to be invaded, occupied and reprogrammed right now!

Mac didn’t think these rice-eatin’, fish-lovin’ SOBs could read kanji — their own language — and he set out to prove it. He issued forth a national test/survey of literacy (「日本人の読み書き能力調査」) , aimed at, as I recall, adults of both genders and from all strata of society, throughout Japan.

Now, what MacArthur didn’t know is that Japan, thanks initially to the 寺子屋/”temple sideroom” system, has had near-universal literacy since medieval times. That’s right, in the Edo Period, when samurai walked the earth, Japan already had full literacy and a fully developed popular literature. Medieval pop lit, that’s how hardcore Japan was. Regular people, man, woman, rich, poor — reading. And this is back when Japan publicly made full use of two written standards — 漢文 (so-called “Classical” Chinese…although it’s actually easier to read than post-1912 “Modern Standard” Chinese) and 訓讀文 (Japanese written more or less as spoken, with Japanese grammar and word order).

Verily, let it be known that the world’s first novel was written by a woman in Japan who taught herself kanji in her spare time; this was back before even the Edo Period, when kanji-learning was still brand, spanking new to Japan, and limited to men), until she got better at it than her husband despite[11] his having a tutor and all that.

In a sense, it’s telling that Biggie Mac was a completely illiterate man; in fact, he had gone his entire life unable to read — Japanese, that is. Of course he could neither see the meaning nor even the possibility of such a thing. And that’s fine. It’s just that he had no place making decisions about literacy. Do you ever see Michael Jordan urging women to use his special brand of tampons? “Wait till I get my Hanes on you” would take on much more blush-inducing connotations.

So, anyway, they didn’t have trouble reading in Japan. And this was reflected in the results from MacArthur’s test. The test conclusively demonstrated two things: (1) Liv Tyler is hot whether or not she has make-up (2) Japanese people could read. Their own freaking language. Very darn well, thank you very much. Both genders, all classes. Yes, housewives, too. Also, make-up doesn’t actually do Liv Tyler justice…nope.

But by now there were enough puppets in the Japanese “government”, enough brainwashed people that wanted to wipe out kanji in Japan as had been done by France in Vietnam, that a compromise had to be reached. That compromise was the 當用(later 常用)漢字/”general use kanji” system, whereby forms were changed that didn’t need changing and some attempt was made to limit the number of characters used despite their not needing any limiting[12].

Importantly, these changes were not made for the benefit of readers, writers or learners — they didn’t need them; they didn’t want them. They were made to placate then-powerful/well-backed groups who lobbied variously for anglicization/romanization/kana-ization. They also served, quite conveniently, to put an unnecessary hurdle between pre- and post-War Japanese literature, weakening people’s connection to their own history, which, as we know, works very well when you’re wanting to mold a nation into a new shape you’ve picked: see Communist China for further instructions.

Fortunately, the people of Japan love their kanji; names of people, places and organizations have remained quite unscathed (examples are everywhere); every change to the “approved kanji list” since the Occupation Era has been an addition, and there are more on the way.

Part 2: Adult Illiteracy

Back when I was at that college with the otherwise intelligent professor with the lively disdain for Chinese civilization, the local town public library was having an adult literacy initiative. I had heard about it once or twice before, but it shocked me to see it in real life. It turns out that many in the US, you know, the wealthiest most powerful country in the world, cannot read at all, or cannot read well enough to complete simple daily tasks such as filling in forms or travelling using street signs. This is despite free, universal, compulsory schooling (it’s a bit of a stretch to call it “education”). You can find out more about it here:

If ABC News is to be believed, then something on the order of 10% of the American population is no-can-reedy, i.e. more than one in ten adults in the United States are driving through life with their phasers set to “stunningly ignorant” What happened to the beautiful simplicity and obviousness of alphabets? What happened to that? Where’s the…where’s…I thought the memo said…(???)

The US is not alone. In other (poorer) countries, using an alphabet and even completely phonetic spelling, illiteracy is rampant. What the frekkin heck is going on?

My college town public library’s initiative came at a time when I was attempting to become literate in Chinese/Japanese. I was haltingly, stumblingly beginning to use my literacy in English to become literate in other languages — and economically valuable ones, at that. Literacy was giving birth to more literacy, knowledge to more knowledge.

Back then, I was also an avid comic reader, and I mean avid, I went through hundreds of pages a day. And it shocked me that there were people in my very own college town, that were not enjoying the power of the written word to inform, entertain and enrich. I resolved to help people share the joy, the power, the magic[13].

My college was big on volunteering, and I had always felt guilty that I had never helped in any of the service projects. I guess none of them had ever struck me as being truly meaningful or effective — just empty hype. But this was different; this, I could sink my teeth into. I, Khatz, was going to help people, and I proudly announced this to one of my service-active friends [she knows who she is].

But, then I realized that the illiterate townspeople[14] didn’t need my help. Or, they did, but they weren’t going to get it. Not just because I was a busy (poorly self-managed?) college student, but because I realized that I needed my help. Because, folks, as it turns out…despite being a college student, I was illiterate. Yes, I could not read…Chinese or Japanese.

Just as Malcolm X once reframed the US “civil” rights issue as a misnamed human rights[15] problem, so I reframed my linguistic issue. I came to the following realization:

You do not have a foreign language problem; you have an adult illiteracy problem. You are not a foreigner learning a foreign language; you are an illiterate adult learning your own language

The problem of adult illiteracy, in cause, symptom and solution, is exactly the same as that of illiteracy for learners of a foreign language. If you look at the statistics ABC News brought up, kids who grow into adults are illiterate not because they’re stupid, but merely because they have not logged the hours with text.

Literacy is directly proportional to time spent with text. When no time is spent with text, no literacy develops. When insufficient time is spent with text, insufficient literacy develops. One is pure illiteracy, the other is functional illiteracy. Take your pick.

Time spent with text is a function of (1) time to spend and (2) access to text in large quantity and wide variety. Both are necessary. [People in poverty tend to lack at least one of these, so poverty and illiteracy tend to accompany each other; illiteracy in Mainland China fits under this rubric].

Do you need a diagram?

Most learners of a foreign language — any foreign language — remain, like a novice skater to the wall of the rink, glued to their textbooks: a boring, sanitized, artificial, mutant subset of their target language. As a result, if they get good at anything at all, they get good at handling a boring, sanitized, artificial, mutant subset of…you get the picture. Their exposure to native materials is insufficient at best if not non-existent. And their language skills suffer accordingly. So it shall be written[16], so it shall be done. Pre-Internet, lack of access to native texts was a natural consequence of physical constraints involved in moving glued-together strips of dead tree. Now, at least for us who have Internet access, this is much less of an issue.

To repeat, the adult illiteracy problem is not limited to Chinese and Japanese; learners of all languages experience it all the time — perhaps worse so, because they often remain oblivious to it. Next time you meet someone who claims to know or be studying some French or Spanish, show them a newspaper/newsmagazine or the manual for their microwave. Can they read it without a dictionary? If not, then they are functionally illiterate. It doesn’t matter jack that they can perhaps sound it out (and even then, how well?); if they cannot read and comprehend without undue reliance on reference materials and within a reasonable amount of time, then they are illiterate.

French and Spanish are supposed to be “easy”; they are the present default foreign languages for English speakers. France and Spain and even Turkey are supposed to be “easy” to travel through, unlike Japan and China where you get “owned” by kanji. Closer examination reveals this to be hogwash.

On the one hand, it’s probably the case that alphabetic writing systems will give you an early feeling of “ah can rayd, Momma!”, that is, until you hit upon the problem that you actually have to learn all the words separately and there’s very little re-use going on. A learner of Japanese, knowing 豚/”pig” and 肉/”meat”, now knows the correct word for 豚肉/”pork”, as well as half of 牛肉/”beef” and indeed any other animal meet (hmmm? Not so phonetic, are we?), as well as “肉体”/”physical/of the flesh” as in “肉体関係”/”sexual relationship”/”relationship of the flesh”. A learner of English has to learn these things separately. And that’s only the beginning.

Take me. Really, all of me. Take me as I am…OK, no. Anyway, I took three years of German while at high school in England. I went on two exchange trips to Germany. I got the highest grade possible (A*: pronounced “A-star”) in both written and oral sections of the national examination for German proficiency. Yet I had never read a German newspaper, geeky publication or even a youth magazine. Nor could I. But supposedly I knew German. The process said so. The school said so. The British gubmit[17] said so.

I could not freely conduct or comprehend written communication in the German language. No excuses need be made for this. I was illiterate. Plain and simple. This is German, folks. The orthography is all nice and regular. Plus, it’s very closely related to this English of ours, both linguistically and ethnically. And it’s the good old Roman alphabet: God’s language. Why don’t I hear people talkin’ smack about how the Roman alphabet is fundamentally broken and inferior and it’s all apples and oranges and Goebbels wore Gucci underwear and the Germans are this and that?

Yeah…I wonder why.

Part 3: Extensive Reading Will Make All Your Dreams Come True…Also Your Adult Illiteracy Problems Will Be Solved

Want to get good at reading and writing in any language? Then read more. A lot more. A lot. You need to become baptized in the Church of Text. No, screw that, baptism is only once — you need to drink the Holy Text Water for breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, midnight snack and everything in between. There’s you[18], there’s text. You and the written word in your target language are going to be buddies from now on. You’re going to be so tight, your wife will be all: “Ah know yew don’t goh up theah da fish!!”[19] That means a book in your bag, a book by your bedside, books in the toilet, and L2 text on your computer screen. And yes, for Japanese learners, it even means less reading of this site, unless it’s the Japanese sections(?), which I intend to start expanding soon enough.

And, I think you will find that not only will you become literate in Chinese/Japanese, but you will find them easier than phonetic writing systems. Not just because of the visual power of the characters, but also because of the amazing ability to create compound words, making even the most apparently complex of concepts, the most expert of expert vocabulary, fully comprehensible to the layman (the 明治時代/Meiji Era mass translation of Western scientific literature and vocabulary into kanji often receives credit for turning the already highly-literate Japanese population into a highly-well-informed juggernaut[20]).

With kanji, it’s like the veil of jargon is never allowed to fall; there is no iron curtain of terminology; everything is transparent. Assuming that you, like me, have no specialist medical knowledge, do you know what an “idiopathic ischemic infarction” is? Me neither; I had to look it up in kanji: 特發虚血性梗塞[21]…looking at the kanji, I at least know that blood gets blocked from going somewhere suddenly and for an unknown reason. Do you know what it means to “sinter” something? I didn’t; but the kanji are so clear: 焼結 “burn+ join”.

I’m reminded of this anecdote from a Japanese professor, related on page 14 of the book 知の収穫/An Intellectual Harvest by 呉智英/KURE Tomofusa and originally taken from 鈴木孝夫/SUZUKI Takao’s言葉の社會學/The Sociology of Language:

「特に面白いのは、漢字の造語能力に注目した一文である。鈴木孝夫は諸外国の大学でも講演をしているが、エール大学でこんな事が有った。黒板にpithecanthropeと書いて、意味を問うても、居並ぶ米人教授達で意味が解る人が居ない。鈴木が、日本では此れを、猿(pithec)人(anthrope)と書くので、朧(おぼろ)気(げ)な意味は小学生でも解るのだと話すと、米人教授達は皆驚いた、と言う」

Summary: “Pithecanthrope”, a word incomprehensible to the group of Yale professors that Suzuki was meeting at a conference of some kind, would be accessible to an elementary schooler in Japan, thanks to the power of kanji.

I guess you could always rub salt in the old Sokal wound and claim that sociology professors are dumb, but…that would be mean.

The end. Sorry for the long post! It’s goofy that a group of people should have to defend their own written language from illiterate foreigners, but…there you go. I wanted to leave out the history part, but I left it in because it’s relevant in terms of the whining people do. Take-home lesson here: get used to text.

Next time you think kanji or French conjugations or German cases are the problem, realize it’s just you not spending enough time with real text. I know how you feel. “It’s so slow”[22], “It’s this”, “It’s that”. Just keep finding something fun; it doesn’t have to look good or academic or serious or cool — it just has to be in the language in question. Even reading movie titles counts!

Today, after playing a video log of my computer activity this past week, I noticed that I had been avoiding reading Chinese in favor of Japanese, because, well, I can read Japanese faster. Then again, after hundreds of thousands of Japanese SRS repetitions, anyone could.

No one is born knowing how to read. In every language we know, we were all slow once. It’s OK to suck. Just to find something fun and keep at it, but whatever you do don’t run away from your target language — this will only hurt you. Stay. Read. You’ll get better.


[1] Japan and China had strong B.S. radar, and made proselyting, indeed, the mind control method itself, an illegal or highly restricted activity. It probably helped that Japan’s leaders at the time caught wind of at least one ill-timed, open admission of the true purpose of missionary activities:

“…the Spanish design for world conquest. An indispensible part of that design…was a fifth column of Spanish friars, sent ahead of military forces to Christianize the people of a country so that the land could then be easily taken over.” [Source]

[2] See Australia as penal colony for an example.

[3] See just about any book about non-Europeans pre-1960s for details.

[4] Just shut up and PRETEND NOTHING HAPPENED.

[5] It’s still OK — all you have to do is be more oblique about it — just ask the New York Times: According to whom them Chahnaze ain’t nothin’ but “a top-down memorization-based elite” who couldn’t “organize a flexible, innovative information economy” if their little jet-black heads depended on it, “no matter how brilliant” they may be. Gee willickers, NYT — thanks for letting us know that them thar Yeller Peril be upon us!!! Where’s my victory garden…

[6] Simple divide-and-conquer. It’ll break up a band (“You don’t need these guys! You make this band!”), and it’ll break up a country (“You Manchurians are different! You’re better! You don’t need those guys!”)

[7] I used to try to learn hanzi by writing each one out fifty times. My form (shape balance and prettiness) improved, but I didn’t remember a single one. Is it the fault of hanzi? Or is it my fault for using the wrong tools for the job? Am I at fault if I try to use fax machine paper in the toilet and it doesn’t flush? Or is it those durn Japanese fax machine companies?

[8] Blind schoolchildren in Japan learn kanji, too.

[9] We often call this “being a gentleman”.

[10] This appeal to universality still has many Africans and people of African descent fooled to this day. Outside of the stereotypical American Bible Belt, they are the last major group of “true believers”. Left holding the baby, they honestly think Christianity is relevant to them. This is not at all to say that Christianity is “bad” or anything silly like that. Christianity is not bad. It’s just bad for Africans. My point is, ice-cream is tasty. Kittens!

[11] Because of?

[12] Taiwan and HK don’t do limiting…

[13] M-Net!

[14] This is easily the most condescending two-word combination I have ever written.

[15] While we’re on the subject, let’s just get this off my chest. (1) Jianti sucks. (2) Tibet is part of China. (3) Marvel is better than DC, but Superman gets tradition points. (4) Everyone who wants to write comics in English should first be required to get training or permission from Alan Moore, Warren Ellis and Craig Thompson. (5) Tibet is still part of China.

[16] Or shall it?

[17] Which begs the question…who the frock died and made them Gott of German? What’s even funnier is that a philosopher might tell you that that’s not the “correct” way to use “beg the question”. You like these footnotes, don’t you? I tried adding footnotes to footnotes but it wouldn’t let me. I wanted to realize that Matthew Perry joke from Almost Heroes.

[18] In a van down by the river!

[19] Mmmm…perhaps less tight.

[20] That eventually juggernauted all the way to China, somewhat…ehhh…uninvited. And…without knocking first. But a juggernaut nonetheless.

[21]特發虚血性梗塞/トクハツキョケツセイコウソク

[22] A look back at my logs shows that I’ve been avoiding using Chinese in favor of Japanese, for speed reasons.

  64 comments for “You Don’t Have A Foreign Language Problem, You Have An Adult Literacy Problem

  1. Daniel
    January 22, 2009 at 00:35

    I enjoyed reading this post more than anything I’ve done in the past 3 weeks (and I’ve done some relatively awesome-ish stuff), and if anyone posts anything negative or whiny I will hunt you down and slap you dead. Yes, slap you dead, it will be humilating, tire me out, and cause nothing but grief for all involved.

    Let’s keep the internet positive, people.

    :)

  2. January 22, 2009 at 01:09

    Wow, that was a really great post. Really informative. And *really* entertaining. Great Job Khatz.

    I suppose you probably knew that you’d get a whiny complaint sooner or later from one of you readers, but whatever, I might as well just get it out of the way. Like, some people just have some sort of beef with Chrsitianity, and that’s cool. It’s your decision. Your blog. Whatev. But, I realize that over the course of history, there have been A LOT, A LOT, A LOT of people who have claimed to be Christians and done really terrible and ignorant things in the name of “Christianity” (I’m thinking of things like the Inquisition, Spanish missionaries in the Americas, and the Crusades here…).

    I think what you’ve said about Christianity is the same thing that people who say “Kanji are stupid and the Japanese/Chaneeeeeze” are illiterate say. Like, these “supposed Christians” (whose practices are practically further from what the Bible says than Buddha or something–so these people are the people who are “illiterate” and really know nothing about the “system”) are really just failures at the system. To blame Christianity (blaming the “system”) is kind of unfair because the true system (as described in the Bible) is different from people who have failed grossly at said system. Like I said, there are a great many people who have claimed to be Christians but have done grossly ignorant things (and obviously never cracked open their bibles…).

    Whatever. I know this sounds like a whiny complaint. But it’s not, and I don’t wanna start a fight. But I just wanted to set the record straight. I basically agree with everything else you’ve said though.

    • Alex
      October 5, 2013 at 01:25

      S##t I don’t even mind that this went cold years ago, I’m responding anyway.

      Religion is a weapon, a perfect weapon and it’s people like you that make it perfect. Without you the whole game shuts down. Your mind is infected and your post is full of symptoms of this infection.

      For the sake of my waning interest I will just copy some observations I made to a chum pertaining to your last ….. chunk ….. of text.

      “Whatever. I know this sounds like a whiny complaint. But it’s not, and I don’t wanna start a fight. But I just wanted to set the record straight. I basically agree with everything else you’ve said though.”

      : see
      : the guy starts by saying whatever
      : like he doesnt really care either way
      : but thats a lie
      : because if he didn’t care he wouldnt have said anything
      : then the next thing he says is “I know this sounds like a whiny complaint, but its not”
      : which is a lie
      : it IS A WHINY COMPLAINT
      : and the wrost part is, “I dont want to start a fight, but……”
      : and then the last bit
      : “I basically agree with everyhthing you saying though” Ties up his whole massive degrading assault in a neat little bow and makes him seem as though he is being the open minded one
      : and that if you challenge him
      : you are the asshole
      : not him
      : and the best part?
      : HE DOESNT EVEN REALISE HE IS DOING THIS
      : ITS UNITENTIONAL
      : ITS JUST THE WAY HIS INFECTED BRAIN WORKS NOW

      F##king great article though, this website is the bollocks mate.

  3. quanto
    January 22, 2009 at 01:24

    Thanks a lot!
    This was incredibly entertaining and inspiring.

    I wanted to insert some fake whining at the start, just to test my slap-evading skills, but I’ll rather return to RTK1.

  4. WC
    January 22, 2009 at 01:25

    Positive is great for feeling good, but negative leads to improvement. I’ll take negative, thanks.

  5. Luke
    January 22, 2009 at 02:07

    Very interesting article! AJATT is getting political! :D

  6. Hashiriya
    January 22, 2009 at 02:24

    i agree with you igordesu about the whole Christianity thing… but yeh it’s a good article other than that… i am glad it confirmed my idea of doing a lot of reading once i got the jouyou kanji good and down… it’s only logical that tons of reading would make you a better reader..

  7. Shira
    January 22, 2009 at 04:45

    Hi, Khatzumotosan! I enjoyed the post. As a teacher of both adult basic English and ESL, I would like to say that ignorance of a foreign language is not precisely like adult illiteracy. An illiterate adult has a full (sometimes even exceptional) command of the spoken language of his community. Granted, reading makes our spoken language richer, since we acquire a lot of idioms, specialty expressions etc. that are more often used in writing than in speech. But still … an average Japanese first grader speaks Japanese better than me! (I read better than they can, though…)

    There’s a good reason that even though small children have an excellent command of their native language, we spend another 8-16 years teaching it to them. The spoken and written forms of a language, though certainly closely related, are not just substitutes for each other, and the skills needed to acquire them are not identical either.

    But anyway, your main point is well taken. The way to learn to read is to read. A lot. And read material written by natives for other natives.

    Shira

  8. January 22, 2009 at 05:03

    Freakin awesome post. I did a 30-day French challenge, under the idea that “French should be easy as hell coming from the super difficult language of Japanese”. Well, I was wrong. Traditional notions of language difficulty are all screwed up to hell.

  9. January 22, 2009 at 05:20

    I’m guessing this post is gonna spark lots of debates on different issues, and although I’d love to take part in them, I think the literacy story is too important not to have exclusive focus (and with that we can minimize the chance of mentioning Hitler again), so here goes.

    I remember having coffee with one student of English at my faculty and noticing a paper she had glued to her notebook, which had “thought”, “though”, taught” and “through” and the translations into Serbian. I was puzzled by it – yeah, they might be spelled similarly, but why would you need to memorize these things like this – shouldn’t the differences in spelling, even though small, be obvious?

    And then I remember that it’s only obvious if you learn it in a “natural” way – by lots of exposure to written and spoken English.

    Every language has lots of “tricky” stuff, but it’s only tricky from a certain perspective (which is, unfortunately, the one which dominates language learning today).
    As Khatz said, it happens all over the world, even languages with very “simple” roman alphabets (e.g. It happens also in Serbian (my mother tongue), which has the most logical writing system ever (only 30 letters, every single one phonetic. So you learn it 30% faster than hiragana, and when you learn it, you can read anything), and yet in 2002 we had something like 3 or 4 % of the population illiterate (which is a very high.percentage for illiteracy) )

    I think that there should really be a sort of a “japanese literacy progress map”, which motivates and explains how progress happens with kanji. So, the first part would be, say, using Heisig, which takes a month or two or three, and then BAM! When you finish it, you’ve made crazy progress! You’re, in a way, half way there! In just 3 months, you know how to write (and you have a general sense of one meaning of) each of over 2000 kanji!

    The second part could explain how quickly progress happens once you start learning how to read kanji (e.g. once you know that 砂,”sand”, is read すな, you know how to read and write and understand “sand” in Japanese. End of story. Yes, there might be an 音読み, but once you learn that one (or two or whatever), you can read it and write it always. ALWAYS. Instant +1 (or +50?) in your literacy status.)

    I’m only at my 500th kanji using Heisig, so I’m really not qualified to say if this map makes sense or not, but somehow I think that it would work really well together with the very useful, but sadly to some “rational”-minded people not so convincing “just expose yourself to lots of it” argument. It’s always good to have both a general (e.g. notes around your house saying “remember, all japanese all the time! (or, more appropriately, ”忘れるな、日本語しかない!”” and a specific reminder (like the kanji poster)

    Oh, and Hitler. Hit-leeeeer. Hitlah. :D

  10. NSCT
    January 22, 2009 at 05:20

    I’m French and I live in France. But I can’t read some cheap microwaves’ manuals… because they are written in Chinese!

    I work with many people who learned French and are very good at it. Everything is possible if you spend enough time.

  11. Brad
    January 22, 2009 at 09:57

    Khatz is a Warren Ellis fan too? I knew the kid had some sense about him. Though I’d throw in Garth Ennis too, just for learning how to write great dialog, too.

    Now I’m off to read in Japanese…wait, does anyone know any good blogs sites ABOUT comics (in general) in japanese?

  12. January 22, 2009 at 11:44

    It’s like—no matter how many “most frequent 10,000 words in X language” lists you memorize front to back in preparation, I don’t think you’re every going to finally pick up a book the first day and be able to read it (a stupid theory I had for YEARS AND YEARS because I thought it would be too painful to not understand parts, and would rather just memorize until totally ready).

    For me learning I just had to pick up a book and keep plowing really had to be learned through the school of hard knocks. Even if you know all the words, you’re going to run into secondary meanings or usages (like crazy) you hadn’t imagined from your lameo dictionary definition. Even if you know all the words, there will be some bits of grammar logic which will make the text incomprehensible to you just because you don’t have enough experience reading. In short, there are no if ands ors or buts about it, if you want to read one day, you have to start reading TO-DAY.

  13. Ryan Layman
    January 22, 2009 at 11:52

    I loved this. And I`m an English teacher. I don`t think I`ve seen such an epic pwning before. Seriously, I`m saving this.

    Also, an aside for the “No True Scotsman” fallacy with regards to Christians. I think this is a perfect time to quote my friend`s 95% theory.

    The theory works like this. 95% of everything is crap. No exceptions. Christians and Buddhists and Atheists included. Just try to be one of the good 5% and move on.

    Anyways, like I said, I`m an English teacher in Japan (Which, of course, screws me out of vital Japanese time, but I make the freakin` time). An American, and I can`t tell you how many times I run into the exact same arguments from people in my profession, despite my success in Japanese, and my soon-to-be success in German. After that, Chinese (I`m going to grad school . . . for philosophy, I need this shit like oxygen).

    I`m doing what I can to push for something more like this, because frankly, teachers have little power to get much actual learning done besides setting up a huge carrot and reward system and/or begging and pleading and convincing students to take an interest in their subject. Once again, 95%.

    I bet English literacy would be way up if schools actually taught kids to learn the morphemes of language. Learning that lum = light, or cap = head, for example. That`s basically what kanji are, anyways.

    Love your blog, Khatsu. I have some questions to ask you for learners who are well into their sentences, but I`ll write it later. Thanks again.

  14. Dan
    January 22, 2009 at 12:06

    As usual a good reminder to keep to the path.

    (Though I think you’ll find you went to secondary school in England, not high school :D ww)

  15. mike
    January 22, 2009 at 13:02

    I liked the days when this blog was about language learning…can’t have too much of a good thing I guess.

  16. January 22, 2009 at 14:25

    “Most learners of a foreign language – any foreign language – remain, like a novice skater to the wall of the rink, glued to their textbooks: a boring, sanitized, artificial, mutant subset of their target language.”

    Brilliant, I love it. Reading = literacy. Simple and effective.

  17. khatzumoto
    January 22, 2009 at 15:22

    @Dan
    Yes, “secondary school”
    殺すぞコノヤロー!(笑)

  18. January 22, 2009 at 16:03

    Wow, one of the best posts so far!

    (On the subject of an alphabet/romanization coming into Japan)

    I’m one of those people that, although I am learning Japanese, have always had a love for Chinese…And as a result I have a deep hatred for the over use of katakana, and words that don’t need to be taken from English, are still taken anyway…And also the “basic use Kanji” list(which isn’t needed)…

    I just want to know what Japan’s going to be like 20, 30, 50 years down the line…Will kanji even be used? Will romaji be the main writing system? Will Japan become an English speaking country with horrible pronunciation (ヘッロ)?(<— please whatever you do, please don’t do that!!! My ears bleed and a baby is smacked every time an English word is spoken by a Japanese High-school student that has no interest in English, but is require to take English from an underly qualified JET Program teacher in order to pass…Sorry JETs, your not all bad :) )

    All I can hope for is that the Japanese don’t one day wake up and think “you know? Maybe those foreigners were right! Kanji is useless, outdated, and time consuming! Anybody up for a romanization/revamp of Japanese?”

    But this is just a point of view from a foreigner, living outside Japan, looking in…I think I’m just overly paranoid…

  19. Jonathan
    January 22, 2009 at 16:32

    Another excellent post. Between this and the Twitter feed, it seems you’re wavering somewhat between the extremes of text-length of late. :)

    I bet you my house that literacy in the Anglosphere would be a good deal higher if, for example, the word “cat” were represented by a simple drawing of a cat, and if “money” were represented by a drawing that looked similar (or even identical) to “gold”, and if “currency” were spelled with two pictures meaning “money-object”, etc. This is, as far as I can tell, the whole idea behind kanji, and why I hope I never see your old history teacher walking down the street. I fear we’d have, as Calvin once put it, “a frank exchange of ideas.” >:|

    (P.S.: Yo dawg I heard u like footnotes so we put a footnote in yo footnote so u can comment on yo comment)

  20. January 22, 2009 at 16:47

    “Like having people drink bleach instead of clean with it.”

    Haha. Nice. That was awesome.

  21. mike d.
    January 22, 2009 at 16:58

    Seeing your transition from language study to sociology and cultural subjective criticism is interesting. You mention that “Fortunately, the people of Japan love their kanji” which is a funny statement because I see the opposite. For those not living in Japan, your readers take your posts seriously as a reflection of Japanese society. So a biased statement like that might give people the wrong idea. Haven’t you seen how many Nintendo DS games there are for kanji practice? The people buying them are not doing it for recreational fun how people like you and me study it besides the obvious reason of wanting to be fluent. It’s mostly bought by adults who have forgotten a lot because they work in a company and they use the computer to write and the other a parents buying it for their primary school children so they get even more practice. They struggle with it and complain that they have trouble memorizing their list of the 1945 Joyo Kanji (which by the way will be updated with another 186 in February 2009*). It’ll be interesting how it’s accepted.

    * search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/ed20081116a2.html

  22. January 22, 2009 at 18:48

    Khatz wrote: “Stay. Read. You’ll get better.”

    Thanks for this great article.

    You are giving us H-O-P-E.

  23. January 22, 2009 at 21:53

    just to confirm your statement regarding the term “idiopathic ischemic infarction.” I wrote down the kanji 特發虚血性梗塞, and the reading and asked some of my (Japanese High School) students if they understood it. Of course when I read it out loud they immediately asked to see the characters. At first they were a bit confused, and asked what is was.. if it was a ことわざ(諺)(turn of phrase/proverb) or something. I told them it was a medical term and they were all like “oooooh!” and then lauched into debate over exactly what it was, which i couldn’t completely follow, but basically it had something to do with blood coagulating (固まる was the word used) and a heart attack 梗塞 コウ・ソク. I didn’t know this word at the time, so I thought they were talking about a freeway or something (freeway=高速道路 コウソク・ドウロ).

    that was far too much english.

    From

  24. January 22, 2009 at 23:25

    ROFL @ M-Net reference. I used to watch SuperSport and K-TV religiously back when I was young and it was still affordable by the masses.

  25. Luke
    January 23, 2009 at 03:23

    @Khatzumoto – “an otherwise decent ethical system” :-S

    “If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother … Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city … And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die.” Deuteronomy 21:18-21

    Seems pretty decent…. :-P

  26. January 23, 2009 at 14:16

    Hey Khatz,

    In my experience, for a native English speaker, Spanish is definitely easier to learn how to read than Japanese. So much so that, yeah, the two are pretty incomparable.

    I’m not saying this to debate your main thesis (people should read a lot to get better at reading, regardless of the language), but I think that this piece might be better if a little more thought were given to the reality of coming from zero-to-Spanish compared to zero-to-Japanese.

    I would guess that with just a little work, you could take someone with 1 year of basic high school Spanish and get them to “reading the microwave instructions” level Spanish in a month or two of intense reading. Most likely less, but I am being conservative here. There’s a ton of cognates in Spanish, and that coupled with a phonetic alphabet does make for pretty easy reading for Americans.

    As a thought experiment, imagine starting a website called “All Spanish All the Time”, in which you speak frequently and with great pride about how you “learned to read a Spanish newspaper with just 18 months hard work.” I imagine the overall reaction would be less amazement than lots of people chiming in with, “Uh, me, too.” :)

    Again, not at all trying to debate your main point that anyone can learn any language with enough exposure (be still, massive, hulking army of AJET commenter-writers, for this message comes not from foe but friend! dull not your carefully sharpened spears upon this comment-writer’s scrawny flesh!). Just giving my personal opinion that in this one area where this particular essay unnecessarily over-reached.

    Thoughts?

  27. January 23, 2009 at 16:26

    Also, please note that I’m not saying that any of the above makes Spanish ‘better’ or anything silly like that. And did I mention I come in peace? :)

  28. January 24, 2009 at 10:23

    One more comment on the idiopathic ischemic infarction issue. I e-mailed my mom who is a cardiac anesthesiologist (=puts people to sleep/keeps them alive during heart operations)

    do you understand the term “idiopathic ischemic infarction” by any chance? and is there a more “laymans term” for it?

    she responded:
    an “ischemic infarction” is damaged caused to probably muscle (heart or skeletal) or brain from lack of blood flow, probably from a clot. It could also be from intense spasm, but that is more unlikely. The “idiopathic” part we used to say meant it came from the Latin “idio” meaning I don’t know and “pathic” what the hell caused it. It sounds like whatever happened came without a reason they can tell. If you know any more details, I can give you a better answer. Love you!

    anyway… 御免

  29. Jon
    February 9, 2009 at 20:23

    So I’ve let this one stew for a while, but it finally boiled over. I’ve got several objections, not necessarily to the main thrust of your post, but to the details.

    The first, of course, is the assertion that only puppets of the US wanted to get rid of Kanji. Unless you’ve got some evidence that he’s a puppet, you have the case of, say, 志賀直哉, who wanted to do away with Japanese entirely and standardize the nation on French. I suspect you know all this already, but it’s hardly intellectually honest to leave it out.

    Additionally, the “power of kanji” in your examples is actually the “power of translation”; neither the example you gave, “idiopathic ischemic infarction”, nor the example you quote, “pithecanthrope”, are English in any meaningful sense of the word; they’re pure transliterated Greek. You may as well ask someone (who is mysteriously well-educated save for basic Geography) what 亜米利加 means.

  30. Christopher
    March 23, 2009 at 19:04

    That map of writing systems of the world is wrong. It has Malaysia colored for Arabic and Singapore colored for Latin. There are four languages commonly used in Malaysia and Singapore: Malay, Chinese, Tamil, and English. Malay (which uses a Latin writing system) is the most common language in Malaysia. Singapore is perhaps debatable because English is very common there, but I think Chinese is a bit more popular… but anyway I have no idea how they came up with Arabic for Malaysia.

  31. May 18, 2009 at 23:59

    What an awesome article. I’m sure you already know it though :p
    It was really useful, and also: “husband to a murdered son, father to a murdered wife”, made me laugh my ass off ;D

    Nothing else to say, I must get back to my reps so I can finish teh heisig.

    Stay kool mate :))))

  32. Sousuke
    June 4, 2009 at 07:39

    You’re absolutely right. Liv Tyler is a hottie with or without make-up.

  33. Al
    September 17, 2009 at 23:14

    “I guess you could always rub salt in the old Sokal wound and claim that sociology professors are dumb, but…that would be mean.”

    And yet, perhaps not untrue. While I agree with everything you say in this post, I could tell you, roughly, the meaning of “pithecanthrope” when I was in high school. Of course, you have to know the Greek roots of English words, and I certainly would not claim it’s easier than the kanji. But if the study had used average American high school students instead of Yale profs, the result might well have been completely different.

  34. Chuck
    October 18, 2009 at 15:54

    Wow. You wrote quite a bit of what I’ve been thinking recently.

  35. November 25, 2009 at 12:11

    Gotta agree with what Al said above, re pithecanthrope. And while it means the same thing as 猿人, if I just threw down “ape man” at a party, they’d probably not have any idea I was talking about pithecanthrope specifically.

    But yeah I otherwise agree with the post whole-heartedly.

  36. August 30, 2010 at 08:57

    Except that, literacy in Vietnam before introduction of vietnamese alphabet was only for scholarly elite. Vietnamese alphabet was used to fight against french rule, and nowadays literacy in Vietnam nearly universal.

    In Korea, chinese was writing for elite, while Hangul was for masses. Emperors even banned Hangul because they felt popular literacy was threat to their power. Nowadays, chinese is only used by certain academic circles in South Korea; national alphabet is Hangul.

    Turkish before Atatürk was written in arabic abjad. Which was made for semitic language (three vowels, tri-consonantal root, hence role of vowels not that important in sentence), but doesn’t work well for Turkish (eight vowels, vowel harmony, agglutination). Needless to say, literacy went through roof when Turkish adopted turkish latin script.

    Japan, in fact, is exception rather than the rule. There are far too many chinese loanwords in japanese language, a lot of words that sound the same. It would be nightmare to read non-trivial japanese text without kanji. It’d be even worse if they used latin alphabet instead of kana. MacArthur was wrong in asking japanese people to adopt latin script. Japanese language and Japanese writing have strong relationship, that would be lost with
    foreign way of writing.

  37. 星空
    December 9, 2010 at 09:36

    @Terence

    according to one statistic i read somewhere
    [hopefully with some level of reliability behind it],
    “11% of all japanese words are borrowed [STOLEN FOREIGN] WORDS.”

    I like the traditional approach they had; when a battery was 電池
    and america actually had kanji 亜米利加, which looks 10000 times cooler than アメリカ
    (at this point i just write 米国 when no one’s watching.)

    ever since i learned my katakana, i have hates, lothed, abhored, and [any other word i have forgotten to list]-ed them.
    i realise they are necessary to some exteny, but COME ON! 11% of the entire language?!?!?!?!?!
    you must be KIDDING ME !

    on that note, you forgot to mention that, though the better portion of those dredded words arte shoplifted from english, there are also plenty of Portugese, German, French, and Dutch words running rempant.

    but what bothers me the most is those random english words used just to sound cool.
    i guess every country uses that sort of language (inundated by spanish sounding cool)

    this post is deffiately one of the major points of AJATT, second to teh immersion article.
    why isn’t it BIGGER?

  38. Sileh
    December 17, 2010 at 22:51

    Really inspirational stuff; I never really thought about being illiterate, but it’s true. Also, I’m very glad Japan didn’t get rid of the Kanji as it has to be one of the coolest writing systems out there.

  39. herman
    January 22, 2011 at 17:41

    Very interesting article which is worth more than a second time reading. BTW, from the point of view of a native Chinese speaker, the character “闖” would seem quite a bit less than a curvy curve ball. Cuz from the shape of the character, it simply means a horse “馬” rushing in a gate “門”. As long as you know the two sub-elements, writing the character wouldn’t be a problem. What I would call a ridiculous challenge for most Chinese people is the charater for turtle “龜”. You’re basically drawing the animal when you’re writing the character.

  40. Jemini
    September 1, 2011 at 05:37

    If ABC News is to be believed,

    (No they are not to be believed)

    then something on the order of 10% of the American population is no-can-reedy. What happened to that? Where’s the…where’s…I thought the memo said…(???)

    Ignorant statements like this has led to the  “American illiteracy” myth, a myth so often repeated that it is quite frequently taken as fact.

    The U.S. has over 300,000,000 people, Japan has 1/3 of this.

    Literacy rate US 99%, Japan 99%.
    The 10%? Where does this come from? It comes from “non-profit” organizations that need to keep the money coming in. Charity is big business.
    Lets look an another Kanji based system – China

    Literacy rate China 95.9%.

    So, I guess an alphabet based system is better than a kanji based one ( if I go by your reasoning).
    Although MacArthur may have wished to destroy the Japanese writing system, the Japanese had definite plans to eliminate the alphabet based system of America and teach Americans to use kanji.
    Most of what you have written is correct, but which ever language you are reading your history in, it will be filtered with all the truth, lies and bigotry of that culture and writing system.
    Jemini

  41. September 1, 2011 at 20:34

    Wow, I don’t know if Jemini is right, but 10% does seem like a lot.
    I’d say 5% may be more realistic. After all, it doesn’t really matter since most people are here to learn Japanese.

  42. Ian Long
    September 2, 2011 at 10:52

    All depends on how you define literacy.  From the Wikipedia page linked to the page that states the USA has a 99% literacy rate:
     
    The World Factbook prepared by the CIA defines literacy in the United States as “age 15 and over can read and write.” [1]
     
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literacy_in_the_United_States#National_Assessment_of_Adult_Literacy_.28NAAL.29
     
    Having taught in UK secondary schools, I also find it hard to believe that the UK literacy rate is 99%, because it wasn’t in some of the classes I taught. 
     

    • September 3, 2011 at 10:12

      That’s why speaking two languages is that much more awesome. I mean, damn, some people can even write in one.

  43. Steve
    January 20, 2012 at 02:24

    I just studied my 2000th kanji tonight. I’ll finish RTK in 4 days. I’ve been doing the Heisig deck in Anki for about 6 months. I don’t have all of them memorized, and I let a lot slip so I’d get more exposure. I’ve got a big, phallic binge spike back in the middle of Summer. The keywords don’t always spring right to mind when I see a kanji.
    But I know when I’ve studied one before. They’re easy to recognize and keep track of. I can write them without difficulty. I’m comfortable with them. They’ve ceased to be foreign.
    And I can read. Well enough to pick up a book and just keep going forward. I’m reading Eragon. I had about 20 notebook pages of words I didn’t know when I read that book in English. It’s a hard book. But I can just keep on reading, enjoying it.

    And I think it’s mostly thanks to this post, which convinced me to focus study on the kanji, Heisig style. Doing so didn’t make much sense at first, but the paragraph about the “wall of jargon” and Prof. Suzuki’s excerpt reveal the perfect logic behind it. The value of almost every kanji is exponential. 2000 kanji get you hundreds of thousands of words. Six months revealed almost the entire language to me. All it takes now is time to get the nuances. I think you should really stress this point at some…point.

    Thank you, man. Got me further in 6 months than I did in 10 years of wanting to learn Japanese, but having no idea what to do.

  44. Majime
    May 22, 2012 at 16:59

    So I’m guessing Pedro is an acronym for

    Professional extensive dream reading optimization? xD 

    Works, right Khatz? Right?~ haha 

  45. July 27, 2012 at 06:25

    Hey, great article! As a teacher of ESL I often find my students have this issue…in English though obviously, I teach mainly adult students and though I don’t want to insult them by telling them they have a “literacy issue” (even though they usually do due to various circumstances) I find that understanding the things you mentioned in this article help me to 1. better help my students and 2. not feel like I am failing when they don’t get what I’m trying to teach them the first…or second…maybe even third…time around and 3. help me to think of better (funner) ways to get the English to stick! Thanks again.

  46. Fabian
    November 27, 2012 at 18:30

    This is really cool information, mate.

    Now all we need to do is to start developing a way to put Kanji into English. The Japanese are already doing their part very well using that ridiculous amount of loan words, I think it’s time for the west to follow in their steps like we’ve never done before.

    Only of course everyone will start complaining and saying this is stupid, despite it actually being super duper smart.

    Oh well, I’ll try cooking up something, who knows? Don’t think I’m super duper smart enough to develop that entirely new writing system, though… sigh…

  47. Stephen
    January 17, 2013 at 08:06

    I definitely admit it is very slow. The problem I have is that I find myself looking up heaps in the dictionary and then I get depressed that I don’t know enough and have to keep on looking in the dictionary. But I guess that stops eventually?

    • Victoria
      July 20, 2013 at 10:56

      Hi Stephen,

      This is all just my opinion but… I think it must. I’m at a similar stage right now. In making the jump from N3 to N2 I’ve found my vocabulary is woefully inadequate. I’m trying to address this by reading native materials but as you say it’s painfully slow to the point that it’s practically impossible.

      What I’ve done, which seems to be working, is taken some material from Japanese websites (blogs are best, especially blogs on topics you’re interested in) and split it down into sentences using an automated script. If you’re not into farting around with computers you could probably do something similar with a word processor/text editor and “search & replace” to take all the full stops, question marks or exclamation marks and replace them with the same punctuation plus a new line. Then you can use these sentences to make flashcards. There is no “answer” – just “could you read it? could you understand it?”.

      Then for each card (I use Mnemosyne, sorry Khatz…) I look at the sentence. I try to read it “out loud” including the readings for the kanji (there’s no furigana of course). If I have trouble I can cut and paste it into Google Translate or use the WWWJDIC to check the readings. It takes time – it takes no less time than just reading straight out – but it’s only one sentence, and putting it into an SRS means I get to see it over and over again until I do remember (rather than just reading, where each time you finish a sentence you get another one you don’t know).

      It is tough going, but it’s getting easier and when I sat the N2 paper earlier this month there were kanji I knew because I’d seen them in my reading sentences. I think having the context of a sentence is also a good way to learn kanji, rather than just isolated as a single word on a vocab card (although I’m going to make vocab cards for the kanji as well).

      I’ve only been doing this a short while but already it’s helping turn the wall of squiggles into something I actually read, rather than skip-read for the few terms I recognize as I had been doing in the 4.5 years I’ve lived here in Japan (allowed a bad habit to develop, didn’t I!). Before this I’d been trying to read N3 and N2 reading prep books over and over to get into the reading thing but it was so goddamned boring I almost wanted to poke my eyes out. Do what works – your most valuable asset in this war is your motivation to succeed. You can do this. Thousands of Japanese people far less capable than you can do this. Those people who would happily glare at you for being the foreigner in *their* train station, patronize you for being able to use chopsticks, not give a sh*t about your employer’s blatant disregard for Japanese employment law because you’re a commodity… and that’s not everyone, at all, but it’s enough to pi$$ me off… chances are high that those people have barely made it abroad in their lives (otherwise they might’ve learned something about the world) but you know something? They can read. If they can do it, someone like you who is putting in time and energy to go out of your way and learn about another culture and its language… I’m certain you can. 頑張ってください。

  48. Matt
    June 14, 2013 at 12:01

    “Verily, let it be known that the world’s first novel was written by a woman in Japan who taught herself kanji in her spare time; this was back before even the Edo Period, when kanji-learning was still brand, spanking new to Japan, and limited to men), until she got better at it than her husband despite[11] his having a tutor and all that.”

    This isn’t accurate Khatz. The first recorded work of fiction that we have is The Epic of Gilgamesh which was in cuneiform.Also while Beowulf, is technically considered an epic poem, it is thought to have been written between the 8th and 11th century and is the oldest literary work in English that we have. I’m not sure what you’re citing but I would guess that both of these works are older than this novel.

    • Matt
      June 14, 2013 at 12:02

      Ignore my terrible use of commas :/

    • Glenn
      November 1, 2014 at 04:51

      There’s a difference between novel and work of fiction. You said it before, those “works of fiction” are older than that “novel”. Khatz did not say “the oldest work of fiction” was written in Japan. Just googling a little bit I found the title, The Tale of Genji.

      A work of fiction is a novel, but every work of fiction is not a novel.

      Reading comprehension, yo.

  49. Victoria
    July 20, 2013 at 10:45

    Just ran across this old post… and it’s great! (Made a nice break from study!)

    You know, I am so glad that there are other non-Japanese, native English speakers in Japan who want to integrate, who see an inability to read in their adopted home as the adult illiteracy problem that it is and not some “oh yeah, Japanese is a *hard* language for us people, the FSI say so” problem. I know that’s not quite the point you were making here, but so, so many of my countrymen and those from other English speaking countries come here, stand in a converted apartment all day getting paid a respectable wage to talk their mother-tongue, spend weekends drinking cans of beer in parks or pissing it up at the nearest Hub, and make absolutely no effort to adapt to the culture. They’re paid to teach people how to learn a language but they’ve never done it successfully in their lives. As someone who does want to be fluent, who does want to integrate, who respects teaching as a profession but feels the industry here is too screwed up by its “easiest way to get a visa” and low entry requirement problems, and who wants to be taken seriously in this country I spend every day of my life challenging the barriers these individuals have constructed for me. And it’s so hypocritical; people who behave that way in our own countries wouldn’t last five minutes. Even the poor migrants who have worked really goddamned hard to build positive, contributing lives in my country now get tarred with all our social problems (see this: www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10158678/Immigrants-create-overcrowding-and-fuel-tensions-report-finds.html ).

    But in daily life here I meet almost nobody who sees things the same way. I work on a team with a couple of other native speakers in an office with what must be 99% native Japanese speakers. They’ve both been here at least three times as long as I have. Are they perapera? Of course not. Neither of them can read. WTF? I mean, they’re great people and all that but seriously, WTF? “Kanji is hard.” Yes, it is. So is walking and riding a bicycle, and getting the university degree necessary to get that Certificate of Eligibility from the Japanese Embassy but somehow we managed it.

    I think we should form some kind of association for foreigners in Japan who want to build positive lives here – including integration. And that’s not to take an apologist position on everything that happens here; there is discrimination, there are problems with how things work, but let’s not pretend we have our own house in order. Let’s listen and try to understand before we condemn. Let’s not presume we have all the answers when it’s abundantly clear that we don’t. Failure to integrate makes life harder for all of us. It should be the exception, but right now it’s the rule.

  50. Maria
    July 27, 2014 at 08:07

    Thank you! so.much.for.this.text!

    and this I say not only as learner of Japanese but also as a teacher for German as a Foreign Language & (this even more, since literature is my dearest non-human love) as a sholar of German Literature… we need to read more & fail & read again & fail & practice & read – I need to remind myself of this as well, as a learner of Japanese that is & as a teacher

    being illiterate is the start, but it shouldn’t be the end

    I am so going to spread this text to ALL my students (and to my friends as well)

    Thank you

    also: changing the prespective is something we – the “west” – are definitelly need, in a much smaller sense I can relate to it, since I am from Eastern Germany, so 40 years of usually taught 20th century German history are not mine, but 2/3 of Germany doesn’t care all… but yes, it’s insignificant compared to the (often) attempt to destroy a culture or to “normalize” it

    Maria

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