Allison Bernard: Becoming Japanese for the Summer: Middlebury Language School and the FLAS
Standing in my bare feet on a brightly-lit stage, sweating from the heat of the light, and dressed in a kimono while providing a Japanese-language narration for a tea ceremony demonstration hardly seems like a suitable environment for deep reflection. At first, I had been rather reluctant to participate in this cultural “talent show” presentation, fearing that the event would require too much preparation and take up valuable study hours in the already time-crunched final weeks of my intensive summer language program in Japanese. Yet, it was somewhere in the course of providing this narration that I felt something akin to relief descend upon me: the sense of strain that I had previously felt while speaking, I realized, had finally been lifted, and I was actually enjoying giving a presentation in Japanese.
The eight weeks I spent over the summer at Middlebury College’s intensive Japanese Language School were a major turning point in my ongoing process of Japanese language acquisition. I had never exactly been “bad at” Japanese, and had made it more or less suitably through my first year of beginning language study at Columbia. Even so, I had not yet felt my understanding of the language really “click,” and certainly lacked the more comfortable degree of familiarity with Japanese that I was used to in working with Chinese, my primary East Asian language. Over the summer, however, my Japanese improved drastically through the Middlebury program’s commitment to total language immersion, even while conducted on a campus in Oakland, California far away from the physical Japan. My intensive classroom studies in intermediate-level grammar and vocabulary were complemented by provocative conversations with my instructors at mealtimes as well as numerous culturally-focused immersion events -- weekend film screenings; a lecture series that touched on important social events such as the devastating Tōkohu earthquake and tsunami; the chance to write senryuu poetry (a form similar to the more familiar haiku) and to attend traditional performances including kamikiri (paper-cutting) and rakugo (a monologue-style form of storytelling); participation in the origami club; and, of course, learning and helping to narrate a demonstration of the Japanese tea ceremony. As each of these events was conducted exclusively in Japanese, all time outside of class was also rendered a constructive opportunity for further learning.
I went into the summer with the expectation that I would continue to study Japanese mainly for research purposes. Given that a large body of Japanese-language scholarship deals with my area of graduate study -- early modern (Ming-Qing dynasty) Chinese literature -- having a proficient reading ability in Japanese as an additional research language will be invaluable for my future work. Yet, during the course of my summer studies, I was exposed to an array of Japanese cultural practices with which I had previously been unfamiliar, and this exposure led me to extend the scope of my interest in Japan beyond the goal of learning the language for the sake of research only. My introduction to the traditional performing arts of kamikiri and rakugo, for instance, has encouraged me to look further into the history of performance influences that link China and Japan, broadening my research interest in Chinese drama to include a larger network of East Asian performance cultures and the kinds of (potentially) shared influences that may have shaped a range of more culturally-specific art forms.
Building from my interests in performance, print culture, and book history, and employing a newly-minted confidence in my Japanese language skills, I choose to analyze the ukiyo-e woodblock prints of Edo period artist Tōshūsai Sharaku for my final class research project. Specifically focusing on Sharaku’s yakusha-e (prints of Kabuki actors) for the purpose of this paper, I looked to provide a basic commentary on the relationship between reality, fictionality, and performance that I perceived in my “reading” of Sharaku’s actor prints. The fact that I could write this short paper, as well as give a fifteen minute presentation based on my thoughts entirely in Japanese, is an immense tribute to the improvements in my Japanese language skills over the summer. Not only did my summer language training provide me with the tools to complete basic research in original Japanese-language source materials, but it also opened up the possibility for me to communicate fairly complex academic ideas in Japanese to an audience of both native and non-native speakers. Just as I came to develop an immense sense of relief that Japanese was starting to “click” during my narration of the tea ceremony demonstration several weeks earlier, giving this presentation to my teachers and classmates was amble proof that I had enhanced my Japanese skills to the point that I could start to use the language academically.
As I return to Columbia this fall, I look forward to continuing my study of Japanese language and to the increased level of proficiency that these classes will help me to attain. Based on the linguistic and cultural knowledge that I gained this summer, I feel that I will be working from a solid foundation as I move forward -- both in terms of my linguistic competence, as well as in the amplified comparative lens that I can now apply to my own research in Chinese literature.
For more information on the Summer Foreign Language Area Studies (Summer FLAS) fellowship, please contact Kim Palumbarit at email@example.com.