Fulbrights Bring Culture and Experience to Classroom
It wasn't unusual for the students when the girl accidentally dropped her ring into Yu Katsurashima's dish at the dinner table and, embarrassed, apologized to him. What was unusual was how quickly Yu apologized to her ... for his dish being in the way. According to Yu, this makes them even and eases the young woman's embarrassment. "That's so Japanese," the students told him. This news made Yu smile since maintaining his sense of self, culture, and identity is important to him while being away from home.
"When I'm speaking in English, I can be more talkative. English is more expressive. Once I start speaking English I feel like a different person," explained Yu, Elms College's Japanese Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant. "I want the students to see me as a Japanese person so they can feel a part of the Japanese culture."
This is not Yu's first trip to America. He was an exchange student at Franklin & Marshall in 2006. "Back then my English was not so good, so this is kind of my revenge," he admits. Yu has been studying English since he was 13 through high school, college, and work. His first job out of college was teaching an English immersion class to children as young as one-year old. In a country where Yu estimates less than ten percent of the population speaks English fluently, Japan is making a concerted effort to encourage more citizens to speak English, even before they've learned to walk. With the decreasing birthrate, the population is expected to be halved by 2050, so Japan plans to increase the workforce outside of the country, including English-speaking nations.
"If you want a position at the head of any department, you need a TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) score of at least 600. The average Japanese college student gets 400-500," Yu explained.
Yu continues to study both English and Japanese and hopes his students will experience the culture, and not just the language, of Japan.
Ciara Cosgrove, a Fulbright FLTA from Ireland, also has been working with children, although not as young as the infants Yu taught English. Ciara had been exposed to Irish in grade school and became interested in learning more. When she was in college, the education and Irish language major requested placements in schools where Irish was spoken. After graduation, she taught at Gaelscoil Uí Earcáin, an immersion school that speaks only Irish for the first year-and-a-half of each child's schooling.
"You spend a lot of time jumping around and playing with puppets, trying to get the point across," Ciara said with a laugh. "But by the end of the first year they're speaking Irish and making their own sentences. It really does work and it's amazing to see what they can do."
Ciara is looking forward to conducting language workshops with the Irish Cultural Center and working with the varied levels of knowledgeable students in her classes.
"There are people who have studied grammar in depth and really know their stuff and know Irish history very well. It's going to be tough to keep everybody happy, making sure the people who are well read aren't bored," she said.