Empress Komyo Calligraphy from Year 744

Introduction to Shodo (書道)

Introduction to Shodo (書道)

One of the things I really loved about being in Japan was seeing how much culture is embedded into daily life.  I’m sorry to Americans everywhere, but we have no culture–not in the way that a country that’s existed for thousands of years like Japan does, at least.  Everywhere I went, there were temples, shrines, women dressed in formal kimono and yukata, traditional food, and common phrases that all reminded me of how different Kyoto was from my home.  I love to learn more about these customs whenever I can, and this semester I was able to when the Japanese club organized a short workshop to learn shodo, Japanese calligraphy.

Photo Credit to Australian Aikido Ki Society

Shodo is a traditional art form that most Japanese children are required to learn in elementary school, much like American kids take art classes.  Kids can also choose to join a shodo club in high school, participate in national competitions, or study it in college.  As with chado (Japanese tea ceremony), kitsuke (kimono wearing), and ikebana (flower arranging), many children take lessons after school or on the weekends, which helps to keep these highly traditional art forms alive.

That did mean, though, that all of the professors and exchange students who helped run the shodo workshop had far more experience than any of the American students.  I had assumed that, since I’ve been doing art my whole life and I love to write kanji, I would be able to pick it up fairly easily. Amy's ShodoUnfortunately, that was not really the case.  Writing complex kanji with a pencil is very different from using a stiff-bristled brush (held vertically, not slanted like a pencil) and ink, especially since stroke order is even more important with ink than it is with pencil.  After practicing only a few characters and over for about an hour, I finally wrote out the kanji for yuki (courage) and signed my name on the sign.

My kanji weren’t the prettiest in class (I heard that one of the exchange students had actually won several shodo competitions in Japan), I really enjoyed getting a taste of this beautiful art form.  In the future, I would love to practice more so that I can fully appreciate shodo.

Amy Clears the Ball!

MLLL Inter-Language Soccer Game

MLLL Inter-Language Soccer Game

It’s not often that students majoring in different languages can organize a single activity that appeals to everyone, but the MLLL department’s soccer game certainly accomplished this.  And it shouldn’t be surprising that the students got so involved in the game, since Germany, France, Spain, and Italy are famous for their national dedication to soccer.

Because German had by far the most students, the other three languages combined into one team for the game.  The players ranged from people who, like me, enjoy soccer but haven’t played much recently to those who play regularly on intramural teams.  Even some professors came to support their languages, some as players and some just to enjoy the beautiful afternoon.  Everyone felt competitive during the game, but there was also an air of fun surrounding the whole afternoon.

Because of how the teams were divided, we jokingly mentioned that the last time Germany faced off against the rest of Europe, it didn’t really end so well.  Maybe we should have taken that as an omen, because the Romance Language team beat us by a large margin.  But I had fun playing soccer again for the first time in several years, and since I didn’t make any embarrassing mistakes, I counted the game as a win for myself.

After the game, most of the students and many of the faculty members expressed interesting in making the game, or even an MLLL intramural team, a long-term tradition.  I hope that it will be, and I look forward to participating in the next tournament!

Delta Phi Alpha Logo

Austria and Delta Phi Alpha

Austria and Delta Phi Alpha

A few days ago I received an email from Delta Phi Alpha, the National German Honor Society, saying that I have been awarded one of their spring semester scholarships! I am so grateful for this honor, which will make it possible for me to visit the CERN particle physics facilities in Geneva and also travel to Munich to view the 13th century Parzival manuscripts.
I haven’t really posted anything about this yet, but next semester I will be studying abroad in Graz, Austria! I am so excited to be living in a foreign country for five months, especially one where I will be able to practice my German skills on a daily basis. Although it is a bit intimidating to be going to Austria, where they speak a different dialect of German than the one taught at most American schools, I can’t wait to challenge myself by attempting to live in German as much as possible. My university, Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz, has a buddy program so I can connect with local students as soon as I arrive in Graz, and I plan to make as many connections with Austrians as I can so that I can fully immerse myself in the culture.
Although I can’t actually register for my classes until I arrive in Austria, the courses I requested are going to be very different from my usual load. History of Austria, the Symphony in the 18th Century, and Japanese Art will all be taught in German, and I am looking forward to both taking classes in a foreign language and the fun subject material. But the course I’m most hopeful about is a graduate level course called Space Law and Space Policy, which will be taught in English. This course aligns perfectly with my future goal to live abroad and work in the space industry, so I really hope that I can take it!
Since the Austrian semester doesn’t line up perfectly with the American system, I have a six week winter break this year, which I am definitely not complaining about. I can’t believe that in less than two months I will finally be moving abroad!

Thoughts on Language Clubs

Thoughts on Language Clubs

Last year I wrote a post about language clubs at OU and why I think they can really help students become fluent in a foreign language.  I still do think they can be an important supplement to foreign language learning, and this semester I joined both the German club and the Japanese club. But after spending seven weeks in Japan over the summer, I’ve been reminded of the limitations of clubs like these.

The main selling point of language clubs–that they provide a low-pressure environment where students can practice their foreign language skills with students of varying degrees of fluency–is also one of their greatest drawbacks.  The reason is that pressure plays a huge role in forcing the brain to adapt to speaking and thinking in a foreign language.

While I was in Japan, our student “buddies,” professors, and program coordinators weren’t allowed to speak to us in English.  Some of them only know a handful of English words anyway; some buddies had spent a year studying abroad in Australia or America and were far more coherent in English than most of us were in Japanese, but regardless, everyone stuck to Japanese.  My high school study abroad program in Germany was organized the same way–my host father, a veterinarian, was perfectly fluent in English, but the whole family spoke to me in German except in a few instances when they defined a word for me in English.

I’m sure that I’ve said this many times before, but the pressure that comes from not being able to switch back into English is pure gold when it comes to learning a foreign language.  It teaches you how to talk around the words you don’t know.  It teaches you how to just keep talking comfortably and not let the pressure of being perfect get to you.  It teaches you that you actually know how to say far more than you think you do.  And as a bonus side effect, it teaches you kick-butt improv skills for games like Pictionary, Charades, and Time’s Up.

So, I’ve revised my opinion of language clubs to a certain degree.  They’re great for practicing what you’ve already learned and for meeting study partners or other students learning the same language.  But in order to really expand your fluency, to learn how to hold a long, comfortable conversation even if you don’t know all the vocabulary, you have to be in an environment where you can’t fall back to English as soon as you hit a stumbling block.  Yes, it’s easier to throw an English word or phrase into the middle of a sentence (“kono hon wa omoshirokatta kedo, um, character development wa amari yokunakatta deshita“), but it also doesn’t help your fluency grow at all; instead, it teaches your brain that it’s okay to give up and default back to English whenever you can’t remember a foreign word.

I’m not sure if there is any feasible way to create a completely no-English environment on a college campus so that students can speak foreign languages, but that would, in my opinion, be the best way for students to gain fluency.  Perhaps in the future, language clubs could help arrange meetings for students who would be willing to forgo all English for the day.  I’d especially love to see longer activities on weekends, like going to a restaurant, a bookstore, the zoo, or an event, where the students only speak the foreign language with each other!