Guest blog post: Jenny Davenport – Livemocha tutor
Over 30 years ago, as a young African-American and Native American girl in Virginia, I discovered Japan. I found myself reading about it endlessly. I was captivated by the unique culture, especially the very particular, very strong sense of family – it reminded me of the deep emphasis on “family” in my own household. And so, at the eager age of 11, I began teaching myself Japanese.
When I went to high school, I became close friends with two Japanese sisters. The oldest sister taught me proper Japanese, and how to write in Chinese letters, while the youngest would teach me slang.
At 16, I went away to Princeton University to major in East Asian Studies. During my time there, I did a Japanese immersion program at Middlebury College, and then the Japanese Ministry of Education sent me to university in Northeast Japan for a year. After graduation, I went on to become the first African-American woman employed directly by Honda Motors in Tokyo in 1988. I lived there for almost three years, one of only two women among 10 Americans in the initiative to “internationalize” the HQ.
Now, years later, as a mom and a community member, I continue to advocate for foreign language study in public schools. After losing my job last year due to public school budget cuts, I initiated an after-school program teaching Japanese, French and Spanish to neighborhood kids. Foreign languages open so many doors for so many people.
What was my secret to becoming fluent in Japanese?
It started with a deep desire to learn. Fueled by this, I studied hard and passionately. I also cultivated relationships with Japanese speakers, from pen pals to Japanese friends here in the U.S to locals when I lived abroad. These friendships really helped me soak in the culture and language. Even today, I still keep in touch with friends all over the world – Japan, Korea, Mexico, Africa, and a myriad other places.
There are a lot of ways to learn a language, but when it comes to real-life conversation skills, the most helpful thing for me was developing and maintaining connections with native speakers.
I’ve been blessed to experience immersion first-hand. My deep interest in culture and language opened doors for me to travel and expand my horizons even though my family had limited resources; where there’s a will, there’s a way. The path I chose is unique, but you don’t need to travel extensively or live in a foreign country to learn a language and change your world. As an online teacher, I can tell you firsthand that the internet offers similar benefits without a lifestyle change.
How have foreign languages enhanced my life?
Japanese has always been a big part of my life socially, but I’ve also used it for translation work during tough economic times. For me, language learning is not just a means to fluency; the real end-goal is people: communicating, understanding, developing relationships. Language can create opportunities that are not just financial but also very personally fulfilling.
I like “living in different languages”, as do my children, who have developed a passion for all kinds of languages and the friendships that go with them, including German, Italian, Korean, and Spanish. I believe our family interest in bridging cultural divides contributed to my husband and myself being voted National and Colorado Parents of the Year 2010 (we had the honor of being featured in the news and in Colorado Parent Magazine).
My advice for people who are thinking about learning a new language:
My advice to people who are intrigued about learning a new language is to just start. Livemocha is the perfect site for that sort of thing. The format is perfect for busy lives, especially after we’ve started families, juggled careers, lived life. Not only are you studying a language, you’re actually going on an adventure every time you log on. You are visiting new cultures, making new friendships, exploring. You’re also challenging your ability to do something new, especially in an economy that has forced many of us into the routine of “just making it”.
It’s extremely affordable, and actually, can be used free of charge in so many different ways, while offering a way to advance at a very rapid level whenever you’re ready. In this job market, being bilingual gives you an edge. It’s also important to make friends, and to have native speakers critique your work. You’ll feel safe while challenging yourself, because others are also challenging themselves. It’s also motivating to feel as if you’re contributing, which you do when you help others learn your own native tongue.
Just jump into it. That’s my advice. If you leave it for weeks or months because of life and its pressures, and then come back to it, the fact that you started and that you plan to continue is the most important. Have faith.
Learning English? Find Jenny for private live tutoring sessions at http://tutors.livemocha.com/