Jan. 11, 2005
By Susan Green
There are many ways to learn a foreign language - listening to language instruction tapes, enrolling in a French-for-travelers class or watching a lot of television in a language you're interested in learning. But the best way to learn a new language is to immerse yourself in the language and its culture.
If the language is Japanese, a non-cognate language for English speakers, which takes four times longer to become proficient in than Romance languages such as French or Spanish, the shortcut to proficiency is to go to Japan.
And if you're an Ohio University student, you can participate in two unique programs that offer an intensive immersion in Japanese language and culture: the Chubu University Japan Study Abroad Program and the Iwate Homestay and Cultural Studies Experience.
Heading to Chubu
After creating an agreement in 1993 with Chubu University in Nagoya, Japan, then-adjunct professor of linguistics Garry Krzic began traveling there with small groups of students for Japanese language instruction.
"We've been doing this for 14 years," Christopher Thompson, Chubu program director and associate professor of Japanese language and culture, says of the exchange program. "Each year about 15 students go to Japan for different durations of time - most for six months, and a few for an entire year. We encourage them to stay as long as they can."
The program attracts a broad cross-section of students, with many coming from business and engineering. This makes sense since Chubu is an engineering school. It also has a strong information technology program, which is attractive to business students.
William Sheets, '05, a fan of the program, says every student who goes to Chubu has a different goal. "My advice is to be true to yourself, be clear about your goals and go for them," he says. "Anyway you look at it, study abroad is a rare opportunity and you shouldn't waste time on something that isn't meaningful to you." Sheets's goal: to work in Japan after graduation.
"We do a really good job of accelerating the learning process in the study abroad program," says Thompson. "Partly because many of the instructors in Chubu are Ohio University graduates. Many also are Japanese nationals who have learned how to teach Japanese here, with us, and then they return to Chubu to teach."
Thompson expects his students to not only become proficient in the language, but also to be familiar with and practice all of the verbal and non-verbal Japanese conventions before heading to Chubu. "Students have to speak Japanese all the time when they're in the department, and I respond in Japanese. It's not just a class; it's a lifestyle," he says. "And you have to accept it and enjoy it, otherwise you won't stick with it."
To use Thompson's phrase, the Japanese bubble that exists in the linguistics department makes this possible and it feeds the process - the Japanese Program is part of the department. "We have a unique mixture of personalities in the program that makes it easy to do this," Thompson explains.
For example, one of the program's instructors is the mother of another instructor. She visited her son, a Japanese national, while he was a graduate student in linguistics. She was so impressed with the department that she subsequently enrolled, received a degree in linguistics, and succeeded her son as an instructor. The family also brings visiting relatives to class, who in turn host our students in Nagoya. Not only does this give students a solid grounding in the language, it provides an understanding of Japanese culture.
Living in rural Japan
Last year, Thompson launched an intensive immersive experience, the Iwate Homestay and Cultural Studies Experience in the municipality of Tôwa-chô, a remote farming town of about 15,000 residents in Iwate prefecture in Northeast Honshû. It's an area he knows well. Thompson has been associated with the township since 1987 and once worked in the Tôwa-chô Town Hall.
Tôwa-chô isn't a mecca for tourists, and the natural shyness of the residents makes it difficult for outsiders to become part of the community. The Homestay experience is a one-of-a-kind opportunity that enhances the classroom language training by engaging students with the life of the community. It's also a chance for them to balance their perceptions of Japan and its people by contrasting Nagoya's urban lifestyle with the rest of Japan.
The Iwate Homestay and Cultural Studies Experience, a four-credit course, is intense. Students must complete five assignments, which include maintaining a daily trip log, an on-site ethnographic semantics project and a final research paper. But the most nerve-wracking is a speech presentation in Japanese to an audience in Tôwa-chô.
"Speaking Japanese, writing Japanese and reading Japanese were the most difficult aspects of the program. But coming home everyday and talking with my Homestay family was one of my favorite parts of the day," Sheets says. "I really enjoyed sharing my thoughts and impressions with them."
Japanese is a high-context language with a lot of non-verbal cues, such as tone of voice, that aren't easily learned in the classroom. And Chubu's urban environment has plenty of English speakers, so students don't have to rely on Japanese to survive. As Thompson says, they haven't "battle-tested" their Japanese. But when they're immersed in an isolated, rural town, they do have to rely on their language skills and cultural knowledge.
"When you're in Japan, you need to be familiar with the customs and there are a lot of variations," Thompson says. "And students often feel that they don't know how to speak Japanese at all; this gives them a clearer perception of Japan."
Sheets says the program was one of his most valuable experiences at Ohio University and one that helped him achieve his goal.
"My time in Japan was very positive, and I felt well prepared by my instruction," he explains. "I wanted to come back to Japan; I felt I could live here. I say 'here' because I am currently living in Japan, teaching English in elementary and middle school. Because of my positive experience during study abroad, I have decided to make Japan a part of my life."
Susan Green is a writer with University Communications and Marketing.