One of the questions I typically find most difficult to answer are ones where people ask you about yourself. Usually, I default to telling people that I have a twin sister, but another one I find more fun–not that my sister isn’t fun–is that I studied Japanese for 5 ½ years. It probably isn’t something you’d hear from a black girl who grew up on the south side and is the granddaughter of Jamaican immigrants.
The high school that I went to, Whitney Young Magnet High School, offered several different languages that I could study, including Latin, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Chinese and more. The language that stood out to me the most was Japanese, because of my exposure to anime cartoons and manga comics, which I watched and read growing up. It seemed like such a cool language, and I was very excited to learn it.
Most elementary and middles schools require that students have to take at least some basic level of a language other than English. Like a lot of schools on the south side of Chicago, students were required a foreign language class. At my elementary school, in order to meet state and city requirements, we would have an hour dedicated each day to a different non-academic subject, such as art, physical education, music, and foreign language. Because of the time constraints, I learned very little Spanish while I was in elementary school. So when I finally got to my high school, I was very eager to learn it, and even more excited when I learned I continue learning at the University of Missouri-Columbia where I would be going to college.
My experience taking Japanese makes me think a lot about how I wish foreign language in the American education system were focused on more, and taken more seriously. I think a lot about how if I were able to take Japanese earlier on that I could be fluent by now. Because English is a well-known language around the world, many other non-English speaking countries make require students to learn it. I think about how much easier learning Japanese or any other foreign language would have been if I had started at six, or seven, or eight. According to an article on Eldr, it’s easier to learn language when you are younger, because the areas of your brain that deal with language are still developing, and are still receptive to learning a new language. As you get older, particularly after age 10, the same areas begin to tune out foreign sounds, and instead dedicate more of your linguistic map to your native tongue. You’re brain still has plasticity, its ability to adapt and change neural pathways and synapses which results in changes in behavior, environment, thinking and more, but the kind that is essential to solid language reception is lost as you get older.
If I had taken 5 ½ years of Japanese from when I entered school, with a fully developed curriculum, I think my language skills would be much father along they are. Of course my elementary school was required to have class time dedicated to foreign language. However, when you’re a small school on the Southside of Chicago, you only have so much money in the budget to dedicate to foreign language. Just a couple weeks ago, news of CPS’ budget crisis spread and its massive budget cuts, several of them to already underfunded south side and west side schools. Some schools may not want to put more money to foreign language when there are other problems to deal with.
It comes from a place of privilege that we speak English, and that the U.S. is a world power. We don’t think we need to take the time to learn another language because other countries have already taken the time to learn how to communicate with us. For them, it’s seen as a necessity to learn English if you want to be successful. I wish my Japanese at this point was as good as my freshman college roommate Dian’s English was when I met her. Being from China, her country had an education system that saw the importance in learning a foreign language, and I wish ours did too.
Developing my Japanese is very important to me, and I hope, in the future, our education system finds a way to instill those same values in future students that I found during high school. It could open up a world of possibilities. I hope to study abroad in Japan while I’m in college. Even though I am not fluent, my language experience will certainly help me while I’m there. Studying a foreign language for as long as I have has made me appreciate the culture it comes from. I am interested in international journalism because of my experience with foreign language and culture. As a journalism student, I want to tell stories and being versed in another culture I think will help as I move forward. If not for the jobs and other possibilities it can allow, foreign language gives me such personal gratification. The feeling of studying a language for so and actually being able to speak it is such an amazing feeling. It’s definitely something I think all American students should have the privilege of experiencing.