Parlez-vous franais, japonais, espagnol ou russe?

Teacher talk

Posted: Friday, June 13, 2003

When Cheri Carson, a Juneau-Douglas High School Japanese teacher, sees her students in the community, they stop and bow correctly - showing the proper respect to a teacher - saying enthusiastically, "Sensei! Konnichiwa!" Often they are big slouchy dudes in baggy jeans and chains, but they straighten up, and use the appropriate formal language for a social superior, as required in Japanese culture.

I have similar experiences regularly with my Frenchies. There they are at Fred Meyer waving to get my attention so they can greet me with the proper "Bonjour Madame!" and possibly even introduce me to their moms.

These kids are proud to greet us correctly using their second language, demonstrating a key tenet of language programs everywhere - language and culture are inseparable.

I moved here five years ago from Spokane, a city of 300,000. I was surprised to find a part-time French opening at JDHS - they already had one fabulous full-time teacher. Then I learned the high school in this small isolated city offers not only French, but Spanish, Japanese and Russian! Recently, American Sign Language has been added. As I started my new job, I began to realize that Juneau's language program does much more than offer an impressive array of choices for students. In fact, as the year progressed, I began to wonder what I had gotten into.

My first year here, Juneau hosted the Southeast Alaska Language Festival. This rotating event is a full weekend of language activities requiring nearly two months of planning. We spent countless hours creating immersion workshops, (students speak only in the "target language" - no English) scavenger hunts, authentic meals, dances and songs and a closing ceremony involving all the languages together. It was exhausting but rewarding - the kids enjoyed learning about culture and made progress with their speaking skills.

I enjoyed myself and was impressed with everyone's commitment, but was glad it was over so I could return to planning and teaching my new classes. This was October.

In November, the World Language Department participates in a huge fund-raiser, the International Dinner and Auction. We had just finished the festival when planning began in earnest for an entire international dinner.

For 300 people. We took donations of food, money and time, made shopping lists for Costco, and spent hours with our language students preparing, serving, and cleaning up. At 10 that night we staggered to our cars, exhausted but satisfied at a successful community event. Surely this was it for the year. I was beat and starting to miss my full time teaching job in Spokane. It had seemed challenging when I left, but this new "part time" job was grueling.

I rested well over winter break, but when I returned to school in January, I learned of the next challenge. In the spring of every year, Juneau sends students to the State Declamation Contest. This competition involves hours of practice and preparation, and a trip to Anchorage. The night before the event, we gathered the French students together - first through fifth year. The group listened to everyone recite memorized poems, giving critiques on pronunciation, intonation and skill in communicating meaning.

The next morning at 8, the competition started. The day included a cultural trivia test, memorized poetry competitions, individual impromptu speaking, and duet improvisational dialogues.

All our Juneau language students performed extremely well, winning piles of medals across all levels and categories and taking the award for the school with the highest GPA. I was now fully aware of the caliber of the language program at JDHS.

Finishing my fifth year here, I'm proud to be part of our quality program. Juneau language students regularly participate in exchange programs, present in the middle schools, earn scholarships, travel and study abroad, and use their language skills with pen pals and summer visitors. They "communicate in two languages, expand their knowledge of peoples and cultures through language study, possess the language skills and cultural knowledge necessary to participate successfully in multilingual communities and the international marketplace, and are prepared for global citizenship."

These are Alaska's standards in World Language. All that and more is happening every year in Juneau, as our students recognize that speaking a second language fosters international understanding, builds personal relationships, and makes a real contribution toward maintaining a global perspective. Plus, they can show off a bit at the store on weekends, greeting their teacher correctly in another language!

• Lynn Meyers teaches French and English at JDHS.

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