Douglas French, the junior high foreign language teacher, describes his class as a beginning level language and culture class. He introduces the students to Japanese culture, then helps them learn the alphabet so they can write their names. Interestingly, there are two Japanese alphabets—one for foreign words and one for native Japanese words. The students learn to use the alphabet to write their names, then they begin to learn colors, days of the week, and useful conversational phrases.
Rod Helle, the high school Spanish teacher, offers up to four years of Spanish for students, using what he terms an “old school approach to teaching Spanish. I work the grammar day in and day out from Spanish 1 through Spanish 4.” He explains the need for his approach, saying, “I have never seen a language learner succeed without understanding and mastering grammar.”
Both teachers have wide-ranging experience in foreign countries. French, in his second year at PORTA, taught English in Japan for two years, where he also met and married his spouse, Tomoko. Helle, who is in his eleventh year at PORTA, studied at universities in Bayreuth and Mannheim Germany, Salamanca, Spain, and Guadalajara, Mexico, and has also studied woodworking in Brienz, Switzerland and Elbigenalp, Austria. He brings a wide array of teaching experience to PORTA, including three years at Miami of Ohio, one year at the University of Cincinnati, six years at O'Fallon Township High School, and seven years at Pleasant Plains.
Helle and French came to foreign language teaching through very different paths. French reports being drawn to teaching Japanese language through his love of karate, an art project based in Taosim, and a college lab partner who spoke Japanese. Helle identifies “the beauty of languages, the structure and the rules; the fascinating exceptions to those rules; and, of course, the musicality of language” as the siren song that led him to teach.
PORTA’s foreign language teachers encourage students to undertake learning a second language, pointing out the importance of seeing the world from a non-US perspective. As Helle puts it, foreign languages enable students “to be able to see the world and their lives from a different angle. History and philosophy change and become wider and deeper.”
French would like parents of students to know there are many ways to foster an interest in non-US culture and language. He suggested watching foreign films, such as Spirited Away, or Ponyo as good introductions to Japanese culture. “Many students are drawn to anime and manga, as well.” he added.
Of course, not everyone will take foreign language in high school, as Helle noted, “Foreign languages are essentially a niche aspect of education in the US and that's probably not going to change any time soon.” He was quick to add, however, that “A niche can be a fascinating and productive place.”