Elizabeth Strong, Ph.D.

Teach For America
South Dakota

**ストロングさんは、UTでフランス語、ドイツ語、日本語専攻し、2004年にフランス語言語学のM.A.を取った後で、パデュー大学 (Purdue) に行き、2010年に言語学のPh.D. を受け取りました。

I graduated from UT in 2002 with a triple major in French, German, and Japanese, taking my language classes with Junko Saito, Naoko Suito, Chikako Hirayama Cooke, Midori Tanaka, and Robert Khan and additional culture and history courses with John Traphagan and Patricia Maclachlan. I had been interested in Japanese since eighth grade when I learned about the history of World War II and, at the same time, became close friends with a Japanese girl at my school. I didn’t know I would end up finishing a major in Japanese when I started studying it at UT, but I knew that I loved foreign languages and wanted to learn as many of them as well as I possibly could.
I had started my language majors thinking that I would end up becoming a secondary school French or German teacher, but thanks to my many language courses, and to some French linguistics courses in particular, I caught the linguistics bug and decided that I wanted to go on to graduate school. I received my M.A. in French linguistics from UT in 2004 and just received my Ph.D. in linguistics from Purdue University in 2010. It probably goes without saying that Japanese was useful preparation for my graduate education, but I think it offered me some particular advantages that my other language experiences did not.
First of all, since the structure of Japanese is much less similar to English than that of most European languages, learners of Japanese are able to come to linguistics with a much more open mind about what kinds of cross-linguistic differences are possible. In formal linguistics, you want to be able to compare as many different ways that languages could encode things as you possibly can, and if you don’t have some idea of what the possibilities are, you may not come up with the best analysis. For example, I remember attending a conference presentation once by another graduate student who was comparing the choice of “this” or “that” to refer to objects at different distances from a speaker. She designed an experiment which she conducted with speakers of two different languages that was based around the ideas that languages naturally have a binary “this/that” distinction and that this distinction is based primarily on the speaker’s perspective. After her presentation, she was peppered with critiques from professors in the audience who said that the way she designed her experiment would not be sufficient to address a wide range of languages. I instantly thought of the “kore/sore/are” distinction in Japanese and how the position of the listener also matters. When you have been exposed to concepts like this in another language, you are potentially better able to think about whether linguistic theories are going to be generalizable across a wide variety of different languages or not.
Second, I think that studying a language with a syllabary can be very useful preparation for understanding phonology, the study of how languages organize their most basic meaningful units (which, in the case of spoken languages, refers to sounds). I taught introductory linguistics classes for foreign language majors while pursuing my Ph.D., and I noticed that my students who studied Japanese typically did better than students who had studied other languages. Of course, there is an ongoing debate about whether studying languages that are harder to learn from an English speaker’s perspective makes you smarter, or whether smarter students simply self-select to study those languages, but in the case of phonology, I think my students’ experience with Japanese actually made the difference over their peers with similar intelligence who had not studied Japanese because in Japanese, the phonology of the language is encoded in the writing system. Studying phonology entails looking at how sounds are organized in spoken languages and which sounds are allowed by a specific language to go in specific positions. In English, for example, we have a way of pronouncing the sound “p” with a long burst of air after it, and a way of pronouncing it without that burst of air. The first way is only produced when the sound comes at the beginning of a syllable; the second way comes in other environments, such as after the sound “s”. Thus, the “p” sound in “pot” is phonetically different from the “p” sound in “spot,” and native English speakers never mix up which sound goes where. Similarly, in Japanese, the “s” sound can only come before the vowels “a,” “u,” “e,” and “o,” while the “sh” sound can only come before the vowel “i.” This is relatively easy for any Japanese speaker, whether a native or a beginning learner, to understand, because the syllabary teaches you that the only permissible syllables of Japanese that begin with these sounds are “sa, shi, su, se, so.” In English, however, we do not overtly learn that “p” with a burst of air and “sp” with no burst of air contain two different “p” sounds; we figure this out as infants and do it correctly all our lives, but as a teacher, I have always had to convince my native English speakers that this is actually true by holding a tissue in front of my mouth as I say “pot” and “spot” to show them that it only blows when I say “pot.” The other European languages that students typically learn are not any more helpful from an instructional perspective because in all cases, you tend to focus on the spellings that occur in those languages, rather than the sounds; Japanese forces you to learn which sounds are allowed to go together. Whenever I have taught phonology, it has always been much easier to teach it to students of Japanese, because once you show them the “sa, shi, su, se, so” example, the idea that there are regulations on what sounds can go together becomes obvious and intuitive to them. With speakers of other languages, it takes much more work just to convince them that these regulations are a reality of language.
Third, my Japanese classes helped me to learn and teach about foreign language pedagogy, as well as to be a more critical practitioner of it when I taught French, by exposing me to cultural differences in teaching style that I did not experience in my other foreign language classes. The “communicative approach” to foreign language teaching and associated concepts such as constructivism and structured input are very much in vogue in the teaching of Spanish and French, but the pedagogical style in my Japanese classrooms was more closely related to the audiolingual method, more disciplined, and more immersive in terms of practicing cultural differences in areas like politeness due to the fact that almost all of my Japanese classes were taught by native speakers of Japanese, while you are more likely to have a mix of native and non-native teachers in European language programs. There are advantages and disadvantages to every pedagogical approach (whether language-specific or not), and it is easy to base your teaching on the way you have been taught rather than critically evaluating the way you think you ought to teach. Having more exposure to a wider variety of teaching styles in foreign language helped me to think about methods, strategies, and activities for my own teaching that I might not have otherwise thought about.
In addition to all of these ways that Japanese helped me in my graduate program, it provided a fringe benefit to my graduate study in that I was able to use my experience with Japanese to make some extra money (which every graduate student desperately needs). I took a course at Purdue with a lot of Japanese students in it, and one of them asked me to proofread her thesis since I was more familiar with the content area than the tutors at the university’s writing lab would be. She was so happy with the feedback from her professor that she began recommending me to other students, and eventually the professor (who was also Japanese) began recommending me as well because she could tell that my proofreading made a difference in her students’ writing, so I was able to take in quite a bit of extra money without having to do any advertising myself. I sometimes did proofreading for students from other language backgrounds as well, but it definitely helped to have a background in Japanese when working with the Japanese students because I could understand what they were trying to say when they gave examples in Japanese, and occasionally I could catch errors in their Japanese-to-English translations as well.
I decided through the course of my graduate study that I wanted to focus more on teaching rather than research, and now I am working with Teach For America teaching music at three elementary schools on the Rosebud (Sicangu Lakota) reservation in central South Dakota. I didn’t expect that I would end up teaching music, but I am very excited about the possibility to teach students things about language and culture in a fun and sneaky way where they don’t even notice that they are learning “language arts” or “social studies.” I will definitely be teaching my students songs like “Sakura” to show them similarities in the use of the pentatonic scale in music around the world, and I have a couple of students who have said they are interested in Japanese rock and pop, so I am excited to explore those interests with them more as well. I even think my training in Japanese applies to my new life here in terms of learning the norms of Lakota culture. I am so used to thinking about cultural differences thanks to my language experience that it is not very hard for me to remember that Lakota people often avoid eye contact with elders to show politeness, or that they prefer a very soft, rather than firm, handshake. Many of the other new teachers I am here with know these things intellectually, but are still having a hard time remembering them in practice.
For not having started my college education with the intent to get a Japanese major, and for not having pursued further study in Japanese or work in Japan, I think I have gotten a pretty good deal of use out of my degree! I often think about the question that unmotivated students ask their teachers: “when am I ever going to use this in life?” I think too much of our society is motivated by pragmatic concerns and not wanting to put in effort if they can’t see immediate reward. I don’t think we can actually predict reliably whether we are going to use something in the future or not, but if we do learn something, it is always a possibility that we will be able to make use of it, and if we don’t learn something, it is almost certainly a possibility that we will not be able to make use of it, so everything we learn is an opportunity. I would say to anybody who is thinking of studying Japanese that even if you are not sure what you would do with it, if you love it and are motivated to do it, do it, and you will most likely find that you are able to take quite a lot away from it, no matter what you end up doing.
If you are interested in talking to me about doing further study in linguistics or work in education, I would love to hear from you! You can e-mail me at elizabeth.strong@corps2010.tfanet.org.


last modified 9/12/10