It is well documented that the earlier a child is exposed to a foreign language, the easier it is for them to learn it. Still, learning Japanese and Chinese would seem particularly daunting. Thanks to Washington and Lee University's Languages for Rockbridge program, area elementary school children are not only learning Spanish and Chinese, but plans are also well underway to introduce Japanese as well.
W&L students are spending the summer working on lesson plans and a curriculum to introduce Japanese in elementary schools in Rockbridge County, Lexington and Buena Vista this fall.
Languages for Rockbridge began in 2010 by introducing Spanish to area elementary and middle school children. It expanded in the 2011-2012 academic year to include Chinese on a pilot basis at Central and Waddell elementary schools in Lexington.
"Parents actually requested that the school system introduce these languages and public school officials then contacted Washington and Lee, so it's a collaborative effort," said Dick Kuettner, director of the Tucker Multimedia Center and a professor in the Romance Languages department and the Teacher Education program at W&L. Kuettner worked closely with Lenna Ojure, associate professor of education and director of the teacher education program at W&L, in setting up the program which uses W&L's world language teacher education program as its main resource. Ojure and Kuettner are being joined this year with Professors Hongchu Fu, Janet Ikeda, and Kenichi Ujie of the East Asian Languages and Literatures department at W&L. Southern Virginia University is also involved in the program.
"The schools have embraced the program and the response from our students has been very positive," said Sharon Patterson, coordinator of gifted and English as a second language programs for Rockbridge County public schools. "The universities are so generous in their support of our schools and the community. This program is one of many fine examples."
Five W&L students will work this summer as Robert E. Lee Research Scholars to revise the Spanish and Chinese programs and to create the Japanese program.
Renata Carlson, a junior from Boise, Idaho, with a major in East Asian Language and Literatures (EALL) specializing in Japanese will be working on the Japanese program with Rachel Urban, a junior from Opelousas, La., with a double major in English and EALL specializing in Japanese.
In her application for the research scholarship, Carlson wrote that part of the challenge will be figuring out how to teach the more difficult aspects of the Japanese language, particularly the three separate writing systems. She plans to create lessons that will teach the school children basics such as numbers, greetings and household items. She also plans to incorporate a cultural component to include topics such as etiquette, hand gestures and Japanese food.
Matthew Carli, a junior from Greenfield Cent, N.Y., with a double major in English and EALL specializing in Chinese, will work on improving the Chinese program with Astrid Pruitt, a sophomore from Tampa, Fla., with a major in EALL, specializing in Chinese. Carli and Pruitt both have experience in teaching English to elementary students — Carli in China and Pruitt in Denmark.
"People say that Chinese and Japanese are extremely difficult to learn because of their characters," said Kuettner. "But I think if you work at it hard enough you’re eventually going to get it. It's not one of those languages that can’t be spoken. After all, billions of people speak or read Chinese. Introducing world languages at an early stage also instills an appreciation for new cultures and helps in making connections between cultures."
Zachary Cylinder, a junior from Lafayette Hill, with a double major in Spanish and politics, will work on improving the Spanish program by researching elementary Spanish teaching and learning methods. He will also assist in creating a website specific to foreign language educators that will include audio and video resources such as dialogs, video clips and pronunciation techniques that educators can use in the classroom. It will also include various vocabulary and basic grammar exercises.
According to Kuettner, the Languages for Rockbridge program is becoming more and more an integral part of area schools' gifted and enrichment programs. "Some languages at the K-12 level are more commonly offered in urban areas, but K-12 students in Rockbridge do not have these opportunities," he pointed out. "To counter this, Washington and Lee has offered its services."
During the 2011-2012 academic year twelve W&L students, one professor from SVU, and one student from SVU interested in teaching foreign languages volunteered their services in teaching Chinese and Spanish at Central, Fairfield, Mountain View, Waddell elementary schools and Parry McCluer Middle School.
"This program gives our students the opportunity to get out into the community," said Kuettner. "It also allows the University to serve the community in yet another way and to show the strength of its language and education programs. The schools are very receptive to having us do this as is exhibited through support for the program. We hope that Languages for Rockbridge will continue to grow in the number of students it reaches."
In addition to the Languages for Rockbridge program, W&L is hosting the Virginia Governor’s Full-Immersion Language Academies through 2016 to further promote the importance of language and culture learning. Kuettner is coordinator for the language academies.