My first encounter with Japanese was in 2003, in Egypt, sparked by curiosity. Having taught Arabic for a couple of years, I observed adult learners struggling with their reading skills, which made me want to experience learning a language that has a completely new script for me. I decided that I would enroll in the Japanese Cultural Center and complete a 100-hour beginner course. I finished it, but that was as far as I went. My drive for studying Japanese wasn’t strong enough; and I came to realize that this wasn’t the most effective way to understand why learners struggle with their reading skills anyway.
Twenty years later, I was on leave, when COVID hit. Unexpectedly, I found myself with a lot of free time. Having visited Japan in 2017, I had also found new reasons to learn Japanese. What happened next has been an amazing journey on so many levels; and I would like to invite you to learn a new language this year.
Let me share why becoming a language student can transform you as an educator:
Discipline: When we study a language that’s different from anything we know, we become aware of how crucial discipline is. Suddenly, we experience first hand the positive impact of engaging consistently with the target language. We realize that daily exposure is the only road to making visible progress, and we start thinking of ways to facilitate that contact; for us and our students.
Purpose: With discipline, comes a shift in our approach to the homework and tasks we assign to our students. Now, we KNOW what it feels to do ‘busy work’ or engage in conversations on topics that don’t particularly interest us. We start questioning our own curriculum, or some parts of it.
Empathy: As adults, we may not always be able to keep up with the pace of study and homework. This realization makes us more empathetic towards our students, specially on days when they come to class without having completed the assigned work. We learn to listen to them on a deeper level, understanding their challenges and perspectives.
Creativity & Novelty: Studying a new language opens our eyes to approaches and techniques we hadn’t considered previously; it sheds light on our blind spots. This is specially true when we study difficult languages with good teachers. Watching others practice our profession can be a great source of inspiration, and it encourages us to experiment in our classes with new methods.
Culture: From a cultural standpoint, I was confronted with the fact that sometimes we – Arabic teachers – don’t emphasize enough intercultural appropriateness in our classes; at least in comparison with our Japanese counterparts. I think we need to reflect more deeply on the implications and consequences of either helping our students in reaching significant levels of intercultural competence, or failing to do so.
Agency: Being in a predominantly monolingual country like Japan helps one understand the true meaning of autonomy and agency. Every risk we take to solve a daily-life problem is an opportunity to reflect on how we can bring similar experiences to our classroom. Have you asked yourself how many tasks you design that require students to act autonomously in Arabic?
Credibility: Sharing our experiences of learning a language with our students, makes us as more trustworthy and empathetic in their eyes. Conversations about what it means to learn a new language, the struggles we go through, how we navigate embarrassing moments, as well as the ‘aha’ moments we encounter, can inspire our learners to work harder and persevere through challenges. We become a role model for them.
Meta-Learning: Becoming a language learner, makes it easier to have conversations on the topic of how best to study and learn. In fact, it is important to have these conversations, at least once or twice per semester. We should not only bring scientific evidence about how we learn languages best, but also share our personal experiences, including techniques that have or haven’t worked for us.
Professional Development: Most importantly, learning a new language is a form of indirect professional development. It immerses us in a variety of experiences, encompassing everything mentioned above. More than just being enjoyable, it also serves as a reminder of concepts and principles that we might have overlooked or forgotten amidst the busyness of our professional lives. If you can learn a new language (or pick up an old one) this year, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do so.
Japanese is the sixth language that I study formally, aside from Spanish and Arabic (since I was raised bilingual), and I’m still amazed at how much one can learn as a teacher through opening up to a new language and culture. Studying a ‘difficult’ language is truly humbling.