Yasuo Uotate

Yasuo Uotate won a 2013 teaching award in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences—despite, or because of, being well-known among his students as “strict.”[1] Even in the first year, he expects students to address him in Japanese; his methods create a community within and even outside the classroom, as students learn to handle more and more transactions in their new language.

Yasuo was born in Kushimoto, a small town at the southern tip of Honshu Island. In junior high, he excelled in math and science, and thus he entered a high school focusing on those subjects. However, his interests changed;  watching American TV shows, he began to take an interest in the English language—though it was so much more resistant to his analytical mind. He majored in English at Kansai Gaidai University, near Osaka.

Yasuo travelled on four continents during his college years. As a freshman, he spent a month in Hawaii, on a program which included a quick trip to California. The next year, he visited Italy. He studied for a year in Perth, Australia, struggling a bit with the Australian accent. He spent enough time with Singaporean fellow students to pick up some “Singlish” as well as improving his English. He went backpacking in Malaysia and Thailand.

BA work at Kansai Gadai included a minor in teaching Japanese, as well as a major in teaching ESL, with brief stints in the classroom. Yasuo considered returning to Australia, but the most attractive grad school offer came from the U.S. He obtained support as a teaching assistant at West Chester University in Pennsylvania.

A training program in Georgia prepared him to teach beginning Japanese. At the same time, as part of his graduate work in teaching ESL, he found himself teaching English to international students at a private school in West Chester.

This was the critical moment when he realized that he would rather teach Japanese than English. Yasuo realized that, as a native speaker, he had resources to offer students of Japanese that he would probably never have when teaching English, no matter how sophisticated his knowledge of the language became. (Yukari Deacon made the same decision to move from a career teaching ESL to one teaching Japanese, at about the same point in her own career, though her reasoning was different.) Although he completed the MA in ESL at West Chester, his ideas about his next step changed.

Williams College offered Yasuo a position as a Language Fellow in Japanese. His two years there were essential for developing sound pedagogical practices. He had some further training at Bryn Mawr (where he met Yukari Nakamura Deacon, who would eventually become a colleague at UF). After Williams, he went on to a position at Bates College in Maine. Then a position at UF opened up, and he came here.

Coming from stints at small liberal arts colleges in the Northeast, Yasuo needed a little time to adjust to the academic atmosphere at a big state university. Students enroll in Japanese with a varied set of study habits and goals., and sometimes have to learn quickly how much work is needed to master the material. He values and exploits student interest in various aspects of Japanese culture (these days, he notes, some of them are playing the Japanese-language versions of video games).  His students quickly become involved in learning beyond the confines of the textbook, so that in 2nd year he can ask them to share favorite Japanese or Japanese-language-learning websites.

Uotate-sensei is an important part of the Japanese team at UF; like the other Japanese lecturers, he teaches language at elementary, intermediate, and advanced levels, and in addition he teaches Business Japanese. He is not confined to Gainesville and UF; he returns to Japan during most summers, to teach Japanese at Kanazawa Institute of Technology.

[1] “Strict” is a term a Japanese major of my acquaintance mentioned as associated with Uotate-sensei. She characterizes him as “feared but loved.”

Yukari Nakamura Deacon

Her students convinced Yukari Nakamura Deacon to commit herself to teaching her native language. At the time, she was supporting herself by teaching Japanese in a small U.S. college, while she earned a Master’s degree; her plan was to become accredited to teach ESL at home in Japan. The American students would ask her about Japanese structures and usages, and she realized that she couldn’t answer their questions. The challenge led her to realize how much she needed to learn in order to get  her students communicating–and that she wanted to learn it.

Yukari Nakamura was born in Iwakuni, in Yamaguchi Prefecture, a town situated at a river mouth among beautiful mountains. Iwakuni is the site of US Marine Corps Air base, so there was a vivid awareness of American culture.  As a child, Yukari had English lessons, which she recalls with pleasure—the teacher’s pedagogical methods included rewarding vocabulary memorization with candy. The little girl became aware of cultural differences: Americans have different holidays, and different rules about, say, appropriate beverages at meals. This perspective on her own culture was liberating.

At Kansai Gaidai University, Yukari majored in English and American literature, and she took advantage of a year-abroad program. She was sent to St. Olaf College, in chilly Northfield, Minnesota. It was a difficult year, because of the cold, her homesickness, and her struggles to bring her English to new levels. Returning to Kansai, her immediate feelings were that she never wanted leave home again, but she began to realize that the improvement in her English skills had made it worth while.

She recalls how shocked she was by the attitude of the St. Olaf students in class. Unlike reserved Japanese students, they asked questions (thereby revealing that they had not understood the teacher!), expressed their feelings, and even challenged the instructor. At the time, she did not feel ready to join the discussions. A few years later, though, when she was teaching Japanese, it was the questions and challenges posed by her American students that she found exciting.

Yukari’s first job after graduation was with the university registrar’s office, but before long she decided she would rather teach. A program called Exchange: Japan offered the opportunity to study while teaching Japanese to American students. After a nine-week course in Japanese-language pedagogy at Bryn Mawr, she moved on to teach at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. She earned a Master’s in Education at Carthage, but she also realized that teaching Japanese might be even more fulfilling than teaching English. To prepare for this, she enrolled in the Japanese Linguistics graduate program at University of Wisconsin, Madison.

After receiving her second MA, Yukari was eager to get into the classroom full time. The most attractive job opening was at UF. The warm weather enticed her, but even more so the pedagogical climate. She would be joining a team with a strong communicative approach and good departmental support. Susan Kubota and Yasuo Uotate (whom she had met at Bryn Mawr) welcomed her and took the time to make sure she was comfortable with the syllabus and included in conversations about the courses she was teaching. Along with her colleagues, UF students here exceeded her expectations. “They give back to me,” she says, admiring their motivation and willingness to work to learn the language.

Gainesville is now home. Yukari usually visits Japan in the summers, though this year she will not—her parents came to Gainesville instead, for her wedding to a UF linguistics graduate student, Joel Deacon, last winter. She notes that every time she returns—or just talks to Japanese exchange students here at UF—new words have crept into everyday language. She is alert to these changes, and concerned to keep her students using correct but also contemporary language. She is active in the AATJ (American Association for Teachers of Japanese) and the FFLA (Florida Foreign Language Association). Last year she received a teaching award from the FFLA.

Cynthia (Hsien) Shen

One door of the Language Learning Center (an internal door which is rarely closed) wears on its hidden side a sign saying in Chinese “Language Learning Center.” They are a relic of an ambitious project of Chinese video lessons filmed around Gainesville; as I recall, the scene for which the sign was posted involved a cassette tape exchange—in Mandarin. The less obsolete videos from that series are still being used by students in UF’s first-year Chinese courses. A film set is just one of the ways Cynthia Shen has used the Language Learning Center over the past twelve years. She has also taken advantage of web-based materials for her Chinese Heritage Speakers course, and tested speaking ability in the Sanako lab; we have assisted in making sure the streaming videos she and her colleague I-Chun Peir created are available in ever-more-generously-sized streams, too.

Hsien was born in Amoy (Xiamen), China, a port city just across from Taiwan. Her family moved to Taiwan when she was still a baby, and she grew up there. Some years ago she and her brother and sisters—now dispersed across three continents—were able to return to Amoy and explore their roots.

After completing her undergraduate studies in Taiwan, Cynthia decided to go to the US for graduate work. She had been studying English since middle school, and had picked up the name Cynthia in class (just as her UF students choose “Chinese names” for classroom purposes). She remembers studying English grammar and translation. This did not prepare her for getting off the plane in the US and realizing she had never spoken the language.

She did her MA in Sociology at the University of Cincinnati, then went on to Cornell University for Ph.D. work. It was hard work, not only dealing with the spoken language but also all the reading. Her dissertation addressed the quality of life in Japan—a choice influenced by the excellent census data available from Japan. While at Cornell, she worked as a research assistant—including a year as a research intern in Hawaii. She completed her dissertation but never looked for a job related to the field.

The big detour toward teaching Chinese came when Cynthia married and followed her husband to Gainesville, where they began their family.  The Chinese community in Gainesville wanted their children to enjoy their linguistic and cultural heritage. The Gainesville Chinese School began as UF “leisure courses” on weekends at the Reitz Union, and eventually found a home at Oak Hall School, where heritage speakers, non-speakers, children, and adults have opportunities to learn Chinese. Cynthia was active in just about every role in this school—teaching, organizing, collecting curriculum resources, managing the small library. She also tutored a high-school student who was passionately interested in learning Chinese, and his progress impressed friends who were teaching at UF.

In 2001, UF needed an adjunct lecturer in Chinese, and friends urged Cynthia to apply. She was shy about her qualifications, but her teaching demonstration convinced the faculty that she should be given a trial. It was a dramatic learning curve for her, and she took it seriously. For the first year, she shadowed Elinore Fresh —attending every single class and modeling her lessons and activities on what she saw. Since then, she has had opportunities to attend conferences and workshops. But, perhaps because she worked so hard on a Ph.D. in a different field, she seems to have doubted her qualifications for a long time, and only applied for a full-time lecturer position when it was obvious (perhaps even to her) that she was the best person for the job.

Besides driving ahead with projects like the video series to enrich the elementary Chinese program, Cynthia regularly teaches Honors Chinese and and the Anderson Scholars gave her an award for teaching. She developed the Heritage Learners course, including video and reading materials for acquiring idioms. Cynthia has worked with K-12 Chinese language teachers through the Florida Schools Chinese Program Survey, and also through the  StarTalk program of the National Security Administration and National Foreign Language Center. She is one of the directors of the UF in Bejing program, and has accompanied our students there for two years.

“Chance and opportunity” brought Cynthia Shen onto the UF faculty at the moment when Chinese was moving from being a Less Commonly Taught Language to being valued by students and administration—strategically important for business, economics, and world politics. I guess it’s Cynthia the sociologist who comments that she has enjoyed witnessing this huge change. But I had a lively discussion with Cynthia the teacher about some of the web-based tools she likes to offer her students—not only good dictionaries but a Flash tutor for  stroke order and quick ways to transcribe text in Traditional characters into the Simplified form (or vice versa) , as well as a Chinese “Dating Game” for cultural enlightenment as well as language practice.





Kole Odutola

Kole Odutola lives in Gainesville but is also a citizen of virtual Nigeria. It’s not just that he was born in Lagos and lived there until about 15 years ago; it’s not just that he is still working to understand the processes he discusses in his book Diaspora and Imagined Nationality: USA-Africa Dialogue and Cyberframing Nigerian Nationhood. It’s also because, teaching Yoruba at UF, he needs to keep abreast of the growth and change of the language, and virtual Nigeria may be a better place to do that than Nigeria itself (where it is one of a half-dozen major African languages spoken).

Kole grew up bilingual; Yoruba was spoken at home, but English is the official language of Nigeria and was spoken in school. He developed an intellectual vocabulary in Yoruba by participating in the Yoruba literary and debating society in high school, and later was involved in a TV series on health in Yoruba, working with doctors and scientists to find vocabulary for new concepts and to translate, sometimes on the fly. He was not however primarily interested in languages when he was younger; he majored in Botany at the University of Benin, and was a budding poet and photographer. During and after college, though he did teach high school biology for a year, he became involved in media projects, particularly with regard to the environment. This in turn led, in the 90s, to work with  organizations studying and promoting environmental protection, when he researched and wrote reports, brochures, and workbooks integrating international ideas with local needs, policies, and methods of conservation.

In the late 1990s, Kole’s work with German environmentalists led to their asking him to study German, and he studied in Bremen as well as travelling in Germany. Almost immediately, though, an opportunity came up for graduate work at the University of Reading in the U.K., in a program which seemed a perfect fit: using television and video in developing countries. This led to a documentary called Listening for Real in which street children in Nairobi participated in recording their lives.  It also led Kole himself to continue his education in the U.S., with a second M.A. in communications, from Ithaca College. Whereas much of his work up to this point had had to do with public education, this time he was working on instructional design. In 2001, he entered the Ph.D. program in Media Studies at Rutgers. His research made him “a hunter and gatherer of texts” online, and his 2010 thesis became his book on Nigerian internet communities.

It was at Rutgers that Kole began teaching the Yoruba language. The Africa National Resource Center at University of Wisconsin, Madison provided training—first, through a visit to Rutgers by Antonia Folarin Schleicher—author of Yoruba textbooks—and later in a two-week summer course in Madison. Despite the variety of African languages and the diversity of problems (phonetic, typographic) involved in instruction, this program offered not only principles and practices for the classroom but also collegiality among what might otherwise be isolated teachers of the least commonly taught languages in the U.S. He met several of his current UF colleagues during the summer program.

Kole’s interest in teaching Yoruba developed rapidly, building on his Ithaca College work on instructional design. He worked for three years with Professor Akintoye Ojo of the University of Georgia to develop a strongly culturally-inflected multimedia introduction to the Yoruba language, AKOYE, which is available as a CD or online. . In 2006, he accepted a position as lecturer in Yoruba at UF, and in 2012 he was promoted to senior lecturer.

In teaching language, Kole draws on his own experience as an adult learner of German. He not only teaches language and culture, but also discusses with his students the process of learning a foreign language. He uses songs (set to familiar tunes) and other experiences to stimulate students’ interest and memory, and give them confidence in handling Yoruba’s phonetics. He is constantly working on new materials, whether audio recordings or the DVD and workbook Ẹ wá kó Yorùbá, which he developed five years ago.  Yoruba classes are often an interesting mix of students with an interest in West Africa or in Western Hemisphere languages related to Yoruba, and UF athletes (Kole has acquired all too much experience in working with football and basketball schedules). A different mix of students comes to UF in the summers to learn Yoruba in the African Languages Initiative (AFLI), and this intensive program can include field trips and experiences cooking and eating Yoruba meals.

I asked him whether, given his experience on AKOYE, he and his UF colleague Professor Akinyemi would consider developing an online course in Yoruba, but he shook his head: over the technical issues. Yoruba is a tonal language, and its diacritics are complicated; simply to read a text requires a special font (often a specific copyrighted one), and typing it is a greater challenge. But Kole tells me that progress is being made: even Facebook is working on developing a keypad with the needed letters, and programmers are working on texting apps. So perhaps at the next stage of “virtual Nigeria”’s development Kole will be teaching distant students.

Antonio Gil

Antonio Gil is not, he says, “the vision person” for Spanish language teaching at UF, but he is just about everything else. TAs know him both as “Dr. No”—the man to whom you send students who need to hear that word—and as Santa Claus.  As Dr. No, Antonio can evaluate situations quickly, based on his long experience of undergraduate hopes, needs, and excuses. But he also enjoys wearing a red shirt to department parties at the end of Fall term, and handing out gifts to the staff and other honorees. Having been at UF for 32 years, he has the seniority to be taken seriously, whether as the bad guy or the good guy. And, “philosophically,” he is Dr. Yes for the Spanish and Portuguese Studies department chair, taking on whatever courses and duties need to be covered, unfazed by awkward schedules or numerous preparations.

As co-ordinator of the lower division Spanish program, Antonio serves as guinea-pig-in-chief for waves of language-learning technology. “Never adopt [an interface] unless it has already been used for six months to a year by a comparable program,” is a rule he wishes he could follow. He and I recall a difficult year when first-year Spanish first moved from paper lab manuals (for which the Language Learning Center hosted the audio online) to the publisher’s all-too-beta-version online workbook. That seemed disastrous, but at least there was an alternative—a prompt return to the paper books, and a wait until the interface was more user-friendly. First-year Spanish is now again in the midst of a struggle with an online text generating endless problems for students and instructors. Antonio, disgusted though he is by the poor “customer service,” expects the company to clean up its act ASAP. He knows experiments usually require tweaking.

Antonio was born in Cuba, to parents who ensured he learned English by sending him to a Miami summer camp where he was the only non-native English speaker; this experience, which he remembers with pleasure, was reinforced by tutoring in English. At the age of 14—with the change in regime at home–he moved, alone, to Mexico City, where he continued his education and held various jobs, often using his English-language skills. When he was about 20, with some friends, he moved to Eugene, Oregon, where he earned a BA at the University of Oregon. A professor advised him to apply for a year-long program in Italy—he had become interested in Italian—and he became the first American student enrolled in the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa.  He returned to Eugene for graduate school, teaching Spanish and Italian as needed and eventually leaving with a Master’s in the two languages.

Somewhere in there, Antonio briefly taught Spanish in a middle school, in a small, rough Oregon town. The experiment did not last long. ”Anyone who teaches middle school for more than two years has a place in heaven.”

He looked for college-level jobs teaching Spanish and Italian, and found one at Ohio State. There, he was involved in an innovative program, funded by a grant, of individualized, independent language instruction: students worked through lessons on their own, but could meet with their teachers one-on-one during extensive office hours; they passed tests at their own pace. It strikes me that this late-1970s experiment ought to be very applicable to online learning, and Antonio agrees.

At the end of his three-year contract at Ohio, he was looking around for other positions, and finding mostly very short contracts. UF made the best offer—a year—and Antonio, now with a family, moved to Gainesville. Obviously, the contract was renewed. His experience in Ohio’s large language programs prepared him for organizational jobs at UF. As co-ordinator of the lower-division program, he not only helps train the language instructors and troubleshoots for them, but also schedules sections, orders the textbooks, prepares the syllabus and exams, and everything else that has to be done on the ground for UF’s largest language program.

Antonio also works as a translator and intepreter; he picked up work at first from a local immigration attorney. Now, he notes, he is often working for internet customers whom he will never meet in the flesh. In the early 2000s, UF had a program in translation studies, and he taught a course in legal translation and interpretation. Antonio has taught Italian here, too, though it was clear when Spanish and Portuguese became a separate department that he would be most needed there, and there he remains, providing departmental memory and the authority of his “No.” And presents at Christmas..

Teaching a *foreign* language

I see in my little essays so far a recurring question: What is it like to learn a foreign language? My theme is officially: what is it like to teach a foreign language? However, four out of five of my first subjects are American-born Anglophones. Only Chris Overstreet teaches a language she has used continuously since she was a child. In the other cases, the “target language” was learned after childhood.

Most teachers, of course, teach something they once learned in school, but this is not true in the same way for language teachers as for, say, philosophy teachers. Many of them, like Chris, teach their native language. Moreover, many American professors of foreign language want to teach literature, film, comparative linguistics, or some other metalanguage—not the most elementary communicative skills.

To want to teach these skills, I assume, it helps to remember learning them as a pleasure or a powerful achievement. As a beginner, the adult learner may enjoy the process of decoding and understanding the relationships between languages; but something else is required to reach beyond this into real proficiency and identification with another culture.

Elinore Fresh spoke Chinese as a child and Kathy Dwyer-Navajas heard Spanish spoken in her grandmother’s home. However, they both emphasized how difficult it was for them to acquire (or re-acquire) these languages in college and graduate school. Perhaps the childhood exposure clarified for them the scope of expression in these languages. (I could be romantic and say that these languages represented for them the lost world of childhood.)

Susan Kubota and Sherrie Nunn, on the other hand, decided to learn the languages they teach without childhood experience of them. A work of literature, the Tale of Genji, inspired teenage Susan to study Japanese on her own. Sherrie, at a younger age, was fascinated by her older sister’s Spanish homework, but she was only able to study Italian in grad school, when it was just one of her Romance languages, along with Spanish,  Portuguese and French.

Learning a foreign language is hard, and it is not a process that ends at the end of the semester, but it is exciting and life-changing. Kathy tells her students “I did it, and so can you.”  Elinore looks to games and songs to awaken the child-learner in her students. Susan can exploit her students’ motivations, which often involve a passion for Japanese culture (just like the desire that brought her to the language). Sherrie and Elinore both talked about strategies to get students to make the leap from thinking about what to say, to actual speech and participation in a social exchange.

Kathy wondered, when she was researching her dissertation in Argentina, how deeply it is possible to understand a Latin American culture if you did not grow up hearing the language, seeing the words around you on signs and packaging. Sherrie commented that, much as she loved Spanish, the multiplicity of Hispanic cultures meant that she never felt as if she belonged to a single one of them (whereas after a year in Rome she had an identity within Italian culture). The position of the teacher of a learned language seems to me to lie between these two problematic situations. You know enough about the language and culture to be aware than you will never know enough. And teaching the language becomes the way to keep learning it.

Elinore Fresh

Elinore Fresh has lived not only in Florida and Taiwan, but in Second China; in fact, she was one of the architects of that virtual island, located online in Second Life.  Unfortunately, she tells me, the lease ran out and the programming has probably reverted to primitive chaos, but while it lasted it was a place she could visit with her classes, sometimes jointly with classes at another university, to clarify business culture in the People’s Republic. This virtual China was the result of a 2007 Department of Defense grant on which Elinore worked with German professor Franz Futterknecht, Computer & Information Science & Engineering professor Paul Fishwick, and Julie Henderson. It was an exciting project for me to watch develop, and a notable instance of co-operation between what were at the time separate language departments (Germanic and Slavic and African and Asian, both subsumed in 2008 in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures).

Elinore was born in Florida, but at the age of 6 months she traveled with her mother and brother to join her father, who was stationed by the Navy in Taiwan. “Chinese was my first language”—she had a Chinese nanny, went to a Chinese school, and spoke Chinese with her brother at home, too, with English reserved for her parents.  On her seventh birthday, she returned to the United States with her family. As is usual with small children, she quickly learned that speaking Chinese was not an asset and replaced it with English, painfully learning to participate in schoolyard culture. After a couple of years in California, Elinore’s father was stationed for four years in Cairo, and she attended a school where English was the main language but Arabic and French were also spoken and taught. Returning to a small Florida town, she experienced “reverse culture shock” as one of the few students who had ambitions beyond high school graduation.

Her childhood experience did not make it easy for Elinore to “pick up” Chinese again as an adult, though it provided a powerful motivation to do so. At UF she majored in Political Science and pursued the study of French. It was only when she happened to attend a lecture about the famous Terracotta Warriors  that she considered learning Chinese again. At first she did so poorly that she withdrew from the course, but as a senior she decided to try again, and succeeded, following up with a two-month program at the Beijing Foreign Language Institute. This confirmed for her that she wanted to pursue Chinese, and Professor Chauncey Chu advised her that she should spend more time in China.

After some post-doc preparation at UF, and financial preparation working in a Chinese restaurant in Orange Park near Jacksonville, Elinore moved to Taiwan and enrolled in a university in Taipei. She found work teaching English to children, and made friends—among fellow university students and also through chance meetings with citizens. Sometimes these friendships had the quality of yuan fen, benignly inevitable, however apparently coincidental.  Elinore ended up spending two and a half years in Taipei, not only teaching but working for a government think tank. In the latter role, she was involved in several Asian cultural conferences. This stimulated her ambitions.

Elinore decided to pursue a graduate degree in Asian Studies, and she enrolled at the University of Hawaii.  She completed the MA and a translation program; when she entered the Ph.D. program in Chinese literature, she began teaching Chinese.  Subsequently, her parents’ needs brought her home to Jacksonville before she could finish her doctoral dissertation. After a period teaching Chinese and working for Jacksonville’s Sister Cities program, she was hired to teach English in Yingkou, in Liaoning province, one of Jacksonville’s sister cities Again, however, she needed to come back to Florida for her family.

At this point, UF’s Chinese program needed a one-year replacement for a professor on leave, and Elinore was in the right place at the right time.  It was 1998, and the Chinese program was growing, so Elinore’s contract as  visiting lecturer was renewed for several years and then a full-time lecturer position opened up.,She has taught all levels of undergraduate Chinese, including literature and culture courses. She participated in UF’s Business College Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER) and developed a curriculum for Business Chinese. She also  participated in the China Retail Study Tour, using her Yingkou connections to give the program more depth. 2013 will be her first summer in charge of UF’s Chinese language program in Beijing.

Elinore’s first pedagogical “mentors” were the children to whom she taught English in Taiwan: “when you start learning a language, you are a child,” mimicking others, playing games. Her training in teaching Chinese, though, came through the NFLRC in Hawaii, from Stephen Tschudi, Cynthia Ning, and others. She quickly developed a taste for communicative activities and task-based learning, to stimulate students to speak with confidence—a reaction to her own memories of shyness the first time she visited China as an adult. The key is to “learn to laugh at yourself”—she loves to tell stories of blunders she made, and how the kindness and courtesy of the Chinese makes it easy to communicate. “I teach them the way I would have liked to be taught.”

After her peripatetic childhood and ten years of commuting from Jacksonville, Elinore seems to have settled in Gainesville—she bought a house here. Taiwan is important to her because of her memories of childhood. But she comments on her wide net of friends: “it’s the people who make the place for me.”


Susan Kubota

How did Susan from a little Florida town—named Gainesville—become Kubota-sensei, a teacher of Japanese? The origin story is one I myself find very appealing: at the age of 15, she read Lady Murasaki’s thousand-year-old novel The Tale of Genji. Like today’s students who discover manga on the internet, she was inspired to learn Japanese. Of course, Japanese was not offered at Gainesville High School, or the Missouri college where she matriculated when she was 17, or UF itself when she returned as a junior to finish her BA (double major in English and Religion, with some good doses of Biology). But “where there’s a will there’s a way”: she found her own resources and studied the language on her own. She did well enough that she was accepted in a graduate program for Japanese literature at the University of Michigan.

This accounts for part of the story: why Japanese? The other part is: why teaching? The answer is more obvious: Susan’s grandfather and great-aunt had been professors at UF, and an aunt was also a college teacher. Teaching held no terrors for her, and after getting her MA she signed a 3-year contract to teach English at a private liberal arts college in Sapporo, on Hokkaido, Japan’s big northern island.

At the end of her contract, she was tempted to renew it; she enjoyed her work and loved life in Sapporo. However, friends suggested that an American MBA would be the perfect credential to work in Japan—these were the boom years there. Again Susan came back to Gainesville, to enroll in UF’s School of Business this time.  She continued to teach language, this time as a TA in Japanese, and to make friends among Japanese visiting faculty here. One of these connections led her back to Japan, this time teaching Medical English in a brand-new national medical university on Kyushu, in the south. “Teaching was my calling,” she had realized.

The abandoned MBA has been very useful to Susan, though. She works now with the Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER) in the Warrington College of Business at UF. Since 2007 she has been teaching a Japanese Business Culture course.

Susan might still be teaching English to Japanese doctors. However, after about three years, she returned to Gainesville to marry Hide Kubota, whom she had known since Sapporo days; he had been studying linguistics at UF. Shortly after their twin sons were born, a call came for Susan from the department of African and Asian Languages and Literatures, which was then only a few years old. She was offered a two-year appointment as a visiting lecturer in Japanese. That was in 1986, and Susan has been active in the Japanese language program at UF ever since. When a program for promoting lecturers was introduced, with the encouragement of her chairs, Professors Wehmeyer and Watt, she attained the ranks of Senior and Master Lecturer.

Susan began, then, by teaching English to Japanese students. The Sapporo program was highly structured and she quickly adapted to the basics, and began to find her own style—which turns out to involve understanding her students’ individual learning styles. The challenge she enjoys is “to find the best learning environment” for each person in her class. She was glad to see the end of the emphasis on grammar—“the communicative method is so much more fun.” Her achievements have been rewarded under the State of Florida’s Teaching Improvement Program in the 1990s and also by being honored three times as an Outstanding Faculty member by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Anderson Scholars. Susan has attended many conferences and workshops on language pedagogy and linguistics, and is particularly focused on their confluence in pragmatics.

Susan and I were laughing at one of the questions on my list: “what countries have you traveled in or visited?” She had just been examining with intent the lab’s Norwegian materials and discussing her plans to visit Norway—or maybe Turkey–this summer, and she has had adventures in Paris and Italian hill towns as well as in Osaka. Her favorite place in the world, though, might be the “very beautiful old castle town” her husband comes from. “You can find the heart and soul of Japan in places like that today.”

Christina Overstreet

What does a 20-plus-year career in language teaching look like? How do you keep from getting bored? Chris Overstreet’s answer is: be part of the conversation. The answer has led her to a Ph.D. and to a remarkable expertise in using technology in, or as, a classroom. When I ask her about her mentors, name after name comes forth… but perhaps even more language teachers might name her as a mentor. She has been a great resource for me, in the language lab, with her interest in new methods and tools. She never forgets that what counts is not the tool but the student’s progress.

Christina Overstreet was born and spent her childhood in a tiny Bavarian village: “I’m really a Southerner!” She graduated from a Gymnasium near Stuttgart, and went on to a teacher’s college, studying English and physical education.  At the age of 21 she married an American and moved permanently to the U.S. For the next ten years or so, she was busy as a stepmother, though she served as a substitute teacher of English and German in the local high schools. When family demands slackened, she returned to school. In 1987-89 she was working on a master’s in German literature at UF—her local university—and she began teaching as a TA. When she received her degree, she was invited to apply for a lecturer position in the department.

Chris’s classroom has changed a lot in 25 years. When she began, Professor Helga Kraft was training the UF German language instructors in the Rassias or “direct” method, which suited Chris’s energetic personality;  some instructors rejected this provocative and dramatic teaching style, “but I adapted it to me… I may have shocked some students, but they came out at the end saying, I can speak German.” New teaching philosophies, and new tools, were coming along, though, and Chris was interested in them all: “I pay attention to what the experts say, and I don’t just have one approach; I choose the method that I know will work best in teaching a certain skill. [Nowadays] I try to be a facilitator, rather than the force in the classroom, always dominating everything and controlling everything. That’s been very difficult for me to give up. Technology helps me to do that.”

Technology. In the late 90s, Chris brought her pedagogical savvy to Professor Franz Futterknecht’s Discover German project—online textbooks which exploited the authentic materials suddenly available on the internet for teaching elementary (and, eventually, intermediate and advanced) language courses. Students facing the website for the town of Mannheim in the first week of class may have been daunted, but Chris’s lively presence was reassuring and her results good. Eventually she piloted hybrid and completely online versions of first-year Discover German. That’s as far as one can get from the dramatic, teacher-centered Rassias method, but Chris’s understanding of how to create a community in the classroom underlies her web teaching methods, too. “I love hybrid…. There’s a lot of investment in delivery at first, and then it gets a little easier—but you still have to interact—you just interact differently.”

Chris was not satisfied just listening to her own voice and those of her students. Early on, she realized “I knew nothing about teaching a foreign language” and began planning to pursue a Ph.D. in language education. She began by becoming certified in TESOL through the Linguistics department; she continued her association with them by minoring in sociolinguistics when she embarked on her doctorate. In 2006 she took her Ph.D. in UF’s College of Education with a dissertation on Reading authentic text in the hypermedia environment. She enjoyed attending conferences—a dozen in the decade of the 2000s—and making friends across the country who were working on the same problems.

Chris serves in several special programs at UF. The long-established summer program in Mannheim has been a favorite since 1993, and she has served off and on as director, co-director, or academic advisor. She looks forward to returning to Mannheim next year—“my second home.” Another program to which Chris’s expertise is important is the Language Teacher Summer Institute for middle and high school teachers.Recently the department appointed her to supervise the TAs who teach elementary German.

As courses across UF drift towards hybrid and online versions, Chris can speak to all the language teachers and graduate students because of her remarkable experience with the web, course management systems, and internet tools. A recent spate of problems with delivery reminded her to remind herself, “Hey, I’m not the idiot here—it’s the program!” She commented on how badly we now need course and instructor evaluations which are appropriate for online courses, so that students and the university administration can understand what is working and what is not.

Kathryn Dwyer-Navajas

I first met Kathy more than 10 years ago, when she was (as she still is) a first-year Spanish co-ordinator. At the time, she was also in charge of the second-year Listening and Speaking course. We had just installed an interactive computer lab and Kathy was ruthless in making sure that the TAs and students got the most out of their lab sessions: everything had to work! the lesson plan had to generate dialogue! She was excited about presenting Latin American cultures through video clips and songs, in those pre-YouTube days. She is still excited and exacting in her most recent new course, where Spanish majors have been, not watching, but making videos representing the cultures and experiences of various Gainesville residents.

In 2005, she won a college-wide Teaching Award. Not too surprising.

Kathy was born in the Bronx. Her mother was Cuban, and Kathy recalls the music and “Caribbean sun and happiness” of her grandmother’s little apartment. Although she heard Spanish spoken, no effort was made to teach Kathy’s generation any language except English. Kathy left college after a year and became a small engine mechanic; until her mid-20s, she saw no reason to look beyond the home circles of the Bronx and Yonkers.

At that point, though, Kathy was wondering “what else there is to do with your life” besides showing up for work. She had made some European friends; she took her savings and travelled first to visit one of them in England, then by bicycle through France (where she felt the isolation of not knowing the language), and on to other countries, including Spain. After a year abroad, she decided to settle in Gainesville, based on reports that it was a place where people “had free time, which no-one has in New York.” Her political and social activism led to contacts with Central America, and eventually to a three-month stint doing solidarity work in Nicaragua, for which she prepared by taking a course to brush up her high-school Spanish. While working on engines in Nicaragua, she began to consider going back to college to study Spanish.

Back in Gainesville, Kathy enrolled at UF. An “unconventional” student—in her thirties, strongly identifying herself as working-class—she found mentors among the Spanish and English literature faculty, and won scholarships. After graduation she went to Johns Hopkins to work on a doctorate in Spanish. Her Ph.D. research focused on contemporary Argentine poetry. While she was in Argentina, a friend from Gainesville made her an attractive proposal: that they form a household to raise a baby she had just adopted. Kathy agreed and returned to Gainesville to finish writing, working again as a mechanic. Eventually she began to doubt her vocation as a literary critic and after long consideration of how best to use her knowledge and talents, and abandoned her dissertation.

At Hopkins, Kathy had taught elementary Spanish. She was alarmed to find that TA training consisted of “handing you a textbook and saying ‘Good luck.’” She raised awareness of the importance of language teaching in the department, which eventually instituted a Methodologies course for all new language TAs. When, back in Gainesville, Professor Geraldine Nichols, one of her UF teachers and mentors, asked if she would be interested in teaching a Spanish class, Kathy seized the opportunity to return to the classroom Kathy seized the opportunity to return to the classroom, though she was still employed as a small engine mechanic. But from term to term she took on more courses and, when a lecturer position became available, she went to work full time at UF.

As a lecturer at UF, Kathy has served as mentor to the TAs, and for several years she ran a Teaching Support Group, at first for Spanish language teachers, but later open to teachers of any language at UF. She has also been involved in UF’s Study Abroad programs in Spain and Mexico and (a recent favorite) the Service Learning program in the Dominican Republic.

Since 2006, every year Kathy visits Cuba, “the forbidden country of my mother and grandmother,” as a representative of Gainesville’s Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. She has written a brief history of the church relationships.

Why teach Spanish language? The attraction is “the contact, the dialogue”: “I love to work with students shoulder-to-shoulder as they’re struggling and watch them triumph, or help them when they hit the tough parts, and say, ‘You can do it, because I did it.’” It is received wisdom that it’s harder to learn a new language as an adult, and Kathy is living proof it can be done. She finds a special satisfaction in teaching Spanish in Florida, where we have so much contact with Hispanic cultures, so many various needs and opportunities for “the joy, the surprises that you can experience when you’re learning language.”