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The College of Liberal and Fine Arts

Found in Translation

How Critical Languages Open Doors for COLFA Students

There are at least 6,000 languages spoken on this planet, yet fewer than half of American high school students study a foreign language — and of those, the majority study Spanish. Business and government leaders now believe that America’s monolingualism has put the country at a competitive disadvantage in global markets and even poses a threat to national security. Both commerce and international relations require understanding and communicating with other cultures, yet this isn’t truly possible without learning the languages of those cultures.

UTSA junior Elizabeth Costales and recent graduates Shannon Irby and Vincent Holmes are doing their bit to address this “language gap” between the U.S. and the rest of the world. Costales, for her part, is studying Japanese in Japan under the auspices of the Critical Language Scholarship program (CLS). The CLS program, created in 2006 by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, is a government effort designed to sharply increase the number of Americans mastering those languages – including Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Punjabi, Japanese, and Urdu – deemed critical to the nation’s security and to its economy. The program offers intensive summer language institutes in 13 countries where these “critical” languages are spoken. Costales was one of only 35 out of nearly 500 applicants selected for the Japanese section of the prestigious program.

Alumna Shannon Irby, who is teaching English to children in Chungcheongbuk Province, South Korea, is not far geographically from her fellow Roadrunner. Her overseas adventure is taking place under the auspices of the Teach and Learn in Korea (TaLK) program, a scholarship program created in 2008 by the South Korean government to support English education in rural parts of Korea while giving undergraduates from English-speaking countries the opportunity to learn about Korean language and culture. Fellow alum Vincent Holmes is also part of the TaLK program; he is based in Chungcheongnam Province on the western side of the country.

Costales’ assignment is part of an arrangement with Doshisha University in the Japanese city of Kyoto.

“I’m good at reading and writing [Japanese], but want to speak better,” Costales said. “It’s very easy when you’re [in the U.S.] to fall back into English, and I want to be fluent.”

The geopolitical importance of her language study is not lost on Costales. But her interest in study abroad was also informed by a quest for her own cultural roots. “My dad is half Filipino and half Japanese, and my mother is Anglo American,” she said. “My dad grew up in the post-World War II era, so his family wanted to be like Caucasian people. He felt he missed out on his culture.”

During her childhood, Costales’ salesman father would present her with family mementos evocative of her ancestry. She described how being given these heirlooms early on helped spark an interest in her heritage.

“He would bring things to us that belonged to his mother, and would tell us stories about visiting his relatives in Japan,” she recalled.

This exposure to Asian culture led Costales to take up a form of woodblock printing that has been practiced in Japan for centuries — most famously by the artist Hokusai — during her elementary school years. The discipline of the craft appealed to her, particularly its inherent demand for symmetry.

“The positive and negative space balance each other perfectly,” she said in describing the art. Costales, who is working toward a double major in art and modern language studies, would like to educate more people on the breadth of Asian artistic expression.

Before Costales’ departure in June, she conceded she was a bit anxious: This was her first trip by herself outside of the States.

“I am very nervous,” she said. “I went to Japan over spring break, but my family was there with me. I have never left my family over an extended period of time.”

Despite her jitters, Costales said she realized her experience in Japan represents the opportunity of a lifetime. After a two-day orientation in Washington, D.C. with other CLS students, she left for Japan, where her stay with a host family provided immersion in that nation’s language and culture.

Yet even before boarding the plane that would begin her journey, Costales had already begun formulating plans to embark on a different kind of JET – the Japan Exchange and Teaching program – to which she plans to apply. The program, administered by Japanese government agencies, is designed to promote international exchange between Japan and other nations.

While Costales’ trek was fueled in part by the desire to reconnect with her heritage, Irby was drawn to Asia by a quest to explore career options. Unlike Costales, Irby was already something of a world traveler before departing for South Korea. The daughter of a military family, she was born in Germany and lived in several countries before graduating from Samuel Clemens High School in Schertz, Texas.

“I’ve gone to school in different states and countries,” she wrote in an email exchange from South Korea. “I’m interested in working abroad, especially in Asia. Before leaving [the U.S.], I was volunteering as a Japanese tutor with [associate director of UTSA’s East Asia Institute] Professor Mimi Yu, who encouraged me to apply for the TaLK program.”

Despite the disparate motivations for their journeys, Costales and Irby almost ended up as travel companions: Irby noted she had settled on Japan as her destination before being persuaded to go to South Korea instead.

“Although I felt more prepared to go to Japan, I was still really excited to visit Korea and learn about the language and culture,” she wrote. “The experience is one I wouldn’t want to trade. There are both rewarding and difficult times, and about every two or three weeks I discover something new and interesting.”

Having earned her bachelor’s degree in communications, Irby is putting that discipline to good use in Korea by striving to master the language: “Through my daily interactions with students, townspeople and friends, I have plenty of chances to learn as much from them as they can from me. I’m also hoping to discover the path to a life goal while I’m here.”

Irby added that she is “learning [Korean] as much for survival as I am for fun. There is a lot of English used in Korea, but it still pays to be able to speak the language. There are phrases I need to know—like those used to book a train ticket in person or ordering food—and there are phrases I should know just in case, like if the old lady at the bus stop decides to talk to me and ask how long I’m staying in Korea.”

And ordering food has had other effects, as well: “Before [I left the U.S.], my mom was the only one in our family who could handle spicy food. After being here five months, I could be her competition!”

Irby acknowledged some of the hurdles of living abroad, particularly the challenge of making Korean friends. But she noted that the rewards of the experience trump any obstacles.

Mimi Yu said that placing UTSA students in such important programs is a reflection of the success of the school’s language studies offerings.

“We have a lot of outstanding students, and we need to keep introducing them to these unique opportunities,” Yu said. About 175 students now study Japanese at UTSA, another 70 are studying Russian, and there are about 55 students learning Arabic and another 100 learning Chinese. The university recently achieved another important milestone, signing an agreement of cooperation with China’s Hebei Normal University. In addition, Korean language instruction is also available at UTSA through a very generous grant received from the Houston Korean Education Center and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology of Korea.

Elizabeth Costales, Shannon Irby and Vincent Holmes, it seems, are part of a growing movement at UTSA to change the punchline of the joke.

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