Department of Japanese Kanbun Instruction and Research Program, Nishogakusha University

An International Research Project Based on Kanbun Sources to Reconstruct a View of Japanese Culture

Program Introduction Overseas Activities Education Program Others Kanbun Database

A Basic Approach for Teaching Kanbun and Kanbun Kundoku to University Students in Italy

Ca' Foscari University in Venice, 27-28 February 2009

Overseas Centre Leader: Aldo Tollini

I. A Proposal for General Kanbun Education

When teaching a language, the four basic skills are listening, speaking, reading and writing, and generally the main focus at the introductory level is on the ability to listen (listening comprehension) and speaking ability, and at the intermediate level on the ability to read (reading comprehension) and writing ability. With any language it is desirable for these four skills to be mastered in the correct order. But in the case of dead languages such as Latin and kanbun all that is required is the ability to read and understand the text (reading comprehension). Therefore, as a strategy it is best to adopt the method of teaching the basic rules for reading and then reading as many texts as possible. In this case, "reading" does not mean simply to "read and understand," but also ultimately "to translate." The act of "reading" within the bounds of a single language means to comprehend the content, but "reading" between two languages becomes "translation." For example, kanbun is read by means of kundoku, and since this is a strategy necessary for translating kanbun (Chinese) into Japanese, it must be included among the items to be studied. Further, in order to understand the text, one must also take into account cultural elements other than linguistic elements such as sentence structure, vocabulary, script and style.

In the following I wish to make some proposals concerning the basic rules and knowledge that ought to be provided for reading kanbun when teaching it to general students.

First, students are made to master the following five kinds of linguistic knowledge.

  1. Structural rules: basic strategies for kundoku (changes in word order, supplementary readings, grammar, syntax).
  2. Vocabulary: vocabulary used in kundoku; Sino-Japanese and native Japanese readings (depending on the reading, a word is judged to be either of Chinese origin or a native Japanese word).
  3. Script: readings of Chinese characters as used in kanbun; many characters are not currently used in Japanese; non-standard character readings (use of characters in China and Japan); special uses of characters.
  4. Grammar: since the grammar is that of literary Japanese, it is unfamiliar to students (special drill is necessary).
  5. Style: concepts and types of style; kanbun (China and Japan) and kanbun style (Japan).

Next, students are made to read a wide variety of many texts in both verse and prose (composed in China and Japan), moving in stages from easy works to more difficult ones. In addition, since texts are vehicles of culture, it is also important to teach aspects of Chinese culture, such as Confucianism, history and literature. By not just providing linguistic knowledge, but also teaching about the culture behind the language, it ought to be possible to boost the students' desire to learn.

II. Teaching Kanbun to Italians

It is only natural that when teaching or studying kanbun, the point of view and strategies will change in accordance with the students' mother tongue. The learning process for Japanese and Italians can be illustrated schematically as follows.

  1. Japanese: kanbun → Japanese / foreign language → mother tongue
  2. Italians: kanbun → Japanese (literary Japanese) → Italian / foreign language → through medium of foreign language → mother tongue

When Italians use kundoku to read kanbun, they translate it into their mother tongue through the medium of another language, i.e., literary Japanese, and therefore the "reading" process is longer and more difficult than that for Japanese students. There will no doubt be connotations and nuances that are lost in the course of translating a text twice.

When reading kanbun by means of kundoku, one uses the two strategies of changing the word order and supplementing additional words when necessary. This is because Chinese is an SVO language whereas Japanese is an SOV language, and also because Chinese words are not inflected whereas Japanese is an inflectional language.

But because Italian, unlike kanbun, is inflectional, additional words need to be supplemented as in the case of Japanese, although since Italian is an SVO language, the word order is more or less the same as in Chinese. If the aim of teaching kanbun is only to comprehend the text, then there is no need to teach kundoku to Italian students. The text can be more readily understood by translating it directly from kanbun into Italian.

Normally, the order of study for comprehending kanbun is as follows:

  1. Study of literary Japanese.
  2. Study of kundoku strategies.
  3. Reading of large numbers of kanbun texts.

Why, then, should it be necessary also for Italians to study kundoku? If the comprehension of kanbun texts is made the objective of teaching kanbun, then it is easier to read them without going through the medium of literary Japanese. But the aim of teaching kanbun is not just the comprehension of kanbun texts.

  1. Study of literary Japanese (including the practical study of literary Japanese)
  2. Translation techniques (translation in a broad sense; comparison with translation in the West)
  3. Understanding of Japanese kanbun
  4. Deeper understanding of language (functions, characteristics and possibilities of language)
  5. Kanbun kundoku as a special linguistic phenomenon
  6. Kanbun kakikudashi
  7. Understanding of kanbun-style Japanese
  8. Understanding of the prototype of the formation of modern Japanese

The items listed above are limited to linguistic elements, but I also think that cultural elements of course play an important role too.

Here I am unable to go into details about each of the above items, but I would like to add one comment on (4) "deeper understanding of language." The study of kanbun is the study of another language and another culture. Acquiring knowledge of a language other than one’s mother tongue generally leads to a deeper understanding of "language," which is a means of communication for human beings. That is to say, the basic mechanism of language becomes clearer and methods of conveying information also change.

When considered in this light, it is, I believe, quite worthwhile for Italians too to study kanbun kundoku.

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Department of Japanese Kanbun Instruction and Research Program, Nishogakusha University