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This summer, I will be taking a course to earn a Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, otherwise known as a CELTA. According to the official Cambridge website, the CELTA course “covers the principles of effective teaching,” giving students “a range of teaching techniques and practical experience.” CELTA is one of the most widely known English language teaching qualifications, so taking the course aligns with my goal of becoming an English language teacher. The certification is beneficial for teaching abroad, and especially for teaching adults. 

Becoming an English as a Foreign Language teacher seems unrelated to my long-term career goals to work in public health research, but it is something I would like to do for the first few years following graduation. I’m interested in meeting new people, traveling to other countries and experiencing the emotional rewards of mentoring and helping others. Simply put, I’m fond of the idea of helping someone on their language-learning journey. Why? The answer lies within my own experiences as a language learner at the University of Michigan.

U-M students have previously discussed the pros and cons of LSA’s language requirement with The Michigan Daily. Concerns about the language requirement include a heavy course load, large time commitment, and difficult content. I held similar fears prior to starting college; I had briefly taken Spanish in high school, but I didn’t place out of the language, and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to continue with it. I also wasn’t much of a language person — or at least I didn’t think I was. I imagined that studying a language would be a challenge, one I would have to face until I reached fourth-term proficiency.

Learning a language filled me with both anxiety and excitement, and I held the LSA language requirement in mind when I decided to enroll in the LSA Residential College (RC). I was interested in the RC because of its smaller class sizes and interdisciplinary nature, but I was also intrigued by its intensive language program.

The RC offers five languages to choose from within the intensive, semi-immersive format: Spanish, French, German, Russian, and Japanese. I have Japanese relatives, so I chose Japanese with the hope that I would learn enough to be able to communicate and connect with them. Taking Japanese in the RC required enrollment in two ten-credit courses, each consisting of meeting two hours a day, five days a week. Participation in co-curricular activities such as lunch tables and coffee hours was also required to fulfill the language requirement within the RC. These were times when students ate and talked with faculty and other language learners, acting as opportunities for more discussion, interaction and overall language practice.

Early on in my first semester of intensive Japanese, the workload was intimidating, and I had no prior knowledge of the language. Despite the class being targeted towards those with little to no experience, several of my classmates had studied the language previously. I felt inadequate; the language didn’t seem to come to me as easily, and I was nervous about how different it was from my native language. 

Differences in verb tenses, tonal intonation, and practically everything else made me question everything I knew — not just about Japanese, but about English. Coming from a Western perspective, learning three different writing systems — hiragana, katakana, and kanji — was especially challenging. There were times I felt defeated, especially when I compared my progress to others in the class. To date, my worst quiz and test grades at the University occurred in my two semesters of intensive Japanese.

After a while, however, I begin to lose my inhibitions. I couldn’t let a fear of inadequacy or mistakes — grammatical or otherwise — stand in the way of practice, and therefore learning. Opening myself up to authentic conversation practice helped me form strong relationships with my professor and classmates. As challenging as the accelerated pace was at times, I also realized how beneficial it was to learn in a semi-immersive environment. Immersion in language learning incorporates engagement with the surrounding world through another language and is often hailed to boast advanced proficiency. As such, the intensive language classes were designed to make learning foreign languages easier, particularly when students are surrounded by others familiar with the courses and share an interest in the language.

Continuously hearing and practicing the language allowed me to become more acquainted with it. I formed close friendships with some of my classmates, as we spent a lot of time together both in and outside of class. Besides conversing with my peers, I often had opportunities to speak with more advanced students and native Japanese speakers during co-curricular activities. 

At one point, my Japanese professor introduced me to my language partner, a native Japanese speaker.  It was a gratifying experience to help one another with our respective languages and connect with another language learner. We had different cultures and native languages, but there were some similarities in our shared challenges and motivations. 

It was also interesting to hear about her life in Japan and transition to the States. Practicing with my language partner further cultivated enthusiasm for Japanese language and culture, and I eventually elected a minor in Asian Languages and Cultures. Such experiences encouraged a deeper interest in the layers surrounding language and culture, and I began to experience the rewarding feeling that comes with learning both a new language and other ways of life.

Not everyone has a positive experience with learning a language ;however, it is clear that foreign language skills can be an asset to students’ diverse academic interests, providing them with an edge in applying to jobs or graduate school and, of course, traveling the world. The intensive semi-immersion language program is a unique part of the Residential College, but there are ample opportunities for students to study a variety of languages at the University. 

My studies in the Japanese language and the Asian Languages and Cultures minor have taught me to be more open-minded in seeking to understand not only other cultures, but my own language and culture as well. In preparation for my CELTA course, I’ve been considering what makes a good language lesson — visuals, speaking practice, a motivating environment

I’ve also thought about my experiences as a language learner that have influenced my ideas surrounding language itself in addition to effective teaching. Learning the grammatical structures of another language can make the same concepts easier in a first language. In my day-to-day life, for example, I rarely considered the importance of intonation — the variation in spoken pitch — and how it could completely change a conversation. Learning about Japanese intonation encouraged me to pay more attention to the natural emphasis and inflection when I speak in English, factors I might consider in working with someone learning English. 

When I think about my journey learning Japanese, I reflect on how much my future goals and outlook on life have been influenced by my experiences at the University of Michigan. I used to joke that I lived and breathed Japanese during my freshman year. Not a day went by that I didn’t do some sort of homework, practice, or studying for the language. It was tiring at times, but I would do it all over again if given the chance. A supportive professor, an interesting language and a close-knit class contributed to a positive experience. I’m not sure I would have considered seriously studying a language such as Japanese outside of college, nor am I confident I would be self-disciplined enough to do so on my own. 

While I’d agree with past critiques that suggest the LSA language requirement takes up time in students’ schedules and might not be for everyone, such requirements may also be beneficial in giving students a solid foundation in foreign language skills to build upon. I loved that the requirement forced me to broaden my horizons and learn something new. I still have a long way to go as a Japanese language learner, but I’m thankful for the experiences I have had so far. If not for the LSA language requirement and the language program offered through the RC, I would not be who I am today.

Statement Correspondent Elizabeth Schriner can be reached at eschrine@umich.edu.