Michael Van Krey, Teacher, Evanstown Township High School
Learning another language is one true way to get into a different culture's mindset. It's fine to study a culture from your native point of view, reading books, seeing videos, or doing other things that can enliven your experience. But to actually get into the skin of a different culture through the language -- that just opens up doors and cracks open world views that you really can't understand until you actually try to learn a language at a deep level. It really does also aid in higher critical thinking skills. There's a certain degree of perseverance and desire to learn something as difficult as a foreign language, [it] teaches skills on many levels in terms of global perspectives of the world.
Technology plays a huge part in bringing Japan into our classrooms. We have a connection with our sister school, it's been over ten years strong with one school, which is quite phenomenal. Our second-year curriculum, for example, is focused on the question of, "What's it like to be a Japanese teenager? What kind of things do they do? How do they live their lives?" This really intrigues the students. It's something that's very real. Everything they learn, whether it be vocabulary or grammar, is based around that central question. The whole year is spent investigating unit-based themes with e-mail contacts back and forth between our sister school and my students. So they really learn about the language through these interactions.
Very simple things like introducing themselves are obviously a very simple thing in second year, but then we move on to themes of school, family, and geography, and topics like what they do in their free time. All those kinds of things are wound together. Finally the students present a large PowerPoint® that weaves how their lives and the lives of Japanese students are both similar and different, and every student has to speak for 15-20 minutes entirely in Japanese. We put some of these up on the Web, and students at our sister school will watch how their lives have been portrayed by these Americans on the other side of the world. It's a fascinating way to look at it.
I also have a fairly interesting third/fourth-year project in one of my two alternating curricula that looks at how American products are marketed in Japan. So you take McDonald's or you take Denny's or Dominos, and things that we have here, they're also in Japan. How does culture affect marketing? My students did a phenomenal job the first time we went through this, really digging in and finding out how culture affects something as simple as marketing. What's appealing to the Japanese as a society? How that is really deeply reflected in the culture? And it's all done through the language.
It's a lifelong process. It's something that I want to instill in them, that this is something that you will carry with you for as long as you choose to keep it going. It's never done, you never finish learning a language, in the same way that I have to look up words in English or I have to continue to read and keep up on things. It doesn't change in that fashion.
Principally, we must be professional in everything that we do in our school and community. Professional means that we teach our students for success; that we’re involved in our district language department; that we’re members of and that we serve on district and state committees; that we’re active citizens in our community; that we’re known as a teacher, and specifically as a Japanese language teacher.
Yes, the Japanese writing system can be daunting, but in the age of technology we can have a reading proficiency of these languages, regardless of the fact of whether or not we have to actually hand-write them. Now, with the technology, we can type in the characters: as long as we know how they sound, they will come out in the correct fonts. You can choose: OK, this is the kind of character I want to mean what I'm saying. The technology really has allowed us to become much more facile and to be able to have the communications abroad. So even if that is one obstacle, we're very much in a position now that that can be overcome. It is a lifelong journey, and it needs to start as young as possible; if high schools can attempt that beginning, all the better.