So, You Think Latin Is Tough? Some Virginia Grade School Kids Take Half Their Classes in Japanese

updated 01/14/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/14/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

Alex-san, Justin-san, David-san." "Hai," each answers in turn as Sumito Ishida Limbocker calls the roll in her first-grade class at Great Falls (Va.) Elementary School. Though most American kids get no closer to things Japanese than the programming in their Nintendo cassettes, these three and 80 other Virginia youngsters hear nothing but Japanese for half the school day. Three Fairfax County schools have been teaching math, science and health classes entirely in that language for the past two years. Their aim: to make children fluent by junior high school—and eventually to make them better able to hold their own in business with the Japanese, 90 percent of whom study English in high school.

The prime mover behind the Fairfax County immersion program is local Congressman Frank Wolf. His survey of U.S. companies trading with Japan snowed that most of the successful ones employed people fluent in Japanese. "If you can't speak the language, how can you compete?" asks Wolf, who arranged a $276,000 federal grant to train the teachers. Grade school immersion in Japanese, which began in Eugene, Oreg., in 1988, has spread to Anchorage, Detroit and Portland, Oreg., but Fairfax County's program is the first to receive direct federal subsidy.

The Great Falls teachers—make that sensei—Limbocker and Chisa Shimamura run a demanding classroom. Even if they have to point, pantomime or draw pictures, neither will slip into English. "Sometimes it's very tempting, because one English word can take the place of three separate explanations," says Limbocker. Despite worries that the course material itself might get lost in translation, roughly a quarter of the school's first, second and third graders have volunteered for the program.

Registered nurse Phyllis Dirvianskis signed up her daughter, Sara, 7, with reluctance. "But more and more Japanese are coming here, and they own half the country anyway," she says. Beckie Hallinger and Bill Fisher, a visiting nurse and an attorney, enrolled their son, Nico, 6, because, says Hallinger, "The United States really lags behind other countries, where foreign languages are taught as a matter of course. Nico wanted it too," she adds, "because ninja are from Japan."

Great Falls didn't have to look far for qualified staff. Limbocker and Shimamura were teaching Japanese in the Washington, D.C., area. They had been born and educated in Japan and later enrolled in U.S. colleges to further their understanding of English. Their own children, Kenji Limbocker, 10, and Monica Shimamura, 15, are being raised bilingually, though Kenji's father, Spence, a funding executive for the Catholic church, speaks only English. (Monica's mother and father, a Swiss, are divorced.)

The Two sensei have had to cope with a lack of teaching materials and must translate all lessons from the approved English-language syllabus. They have also experienced a degree of culture shock. "The Japanese school system is more teacher-centered," says Limbocker, who taught kindergarten in Tokyo. "Here, it's more child-centered." Shimamura is blunter. "The kids talk more," she says. Both women believe the immersion program is best taught by native Japanese. "It's not only the language," Limbocker notes, "it's the culture that comes with it."

So far, the experiment appears successful. The Great Falls students have yet to be formally tested to make sure that they are keeping up in the subjects being taught in Japanese—English, reading and social studies are taught conventionally by English-speaking teachers—but principal Gina Ross is pleased with their progress. "Even though a lag has been anticipated, we're not seeing it," she says. Cynthia Ning, a language professor at the University of Hawaii who is helping to start a Japanese immersion program, points out that students immersed in French and Spanish keep up with their peers, and she sees no reason why Japanese should be any different. Research, she says, indicates that learning a second language at an early age seems to stimulate intellectual growth. "Children's brains," she says, "get more of a workout." Second-grader Richie McLean, 7, concurs. "I remember the first day I was in Japanese, I couldn't understand anything," she says. "Then, bingo, I was there."

In recent years Japan's highly visible successes—selling cars and electronics, buying real estate, Hollywood dream factories and Van Goghs—have generated an inevitable backlash. But if Pacific Rim trade continues to grow at its current rapid rate, the graduates of the Great Falls program will have ample opportunity to make use of their language skills by the time they reach adulthood. For the moment, though, their goals are considerably shorter-termed. Says third-grader Sarah Poulsen, 8: "I might go to Japan with my parents, and they can whisper in my ear, and I'll translate for them."

—Tony Chiu, Luchina Fisher in Great Falls

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