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Ask Away: 5 Questions for a CLS Japanese Program Alumna


We’re asking students, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success… 

Meet Sydney—a University of Minnesota – Twin Cities Asian Languages & Literatures major and TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) minor returning to campus from Japan.

Ask Away: 5 Questions banner image with photo of Sydney sitting on a large rock in Japan

1. You just returned from an 8-week study abroad trip to Japan as part of the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program. What made you decide to make an overseas trip part of your college experience and what was your favorite cultural excursion from of the trip?

I’m majoring in Asian Languages and Literatures with a focus in Japanese language, so I wanted to use the language and cultural skills I’ve been studying in an authentic context. Language is meant to be shared, and I wanted to have that opportunity.

I also believe that one of the best ways to learn about yourself is to explore the world.

My favorite cultural excursion of the trip was our trip to Hikone castle to view a Kyōgen performance. (Kyōgen is a traditional form of Japanese comedy.) We even had a short workshop with the performer afterwards. I’ve been acting since the age of six, and it was wonderful to combine my love for theater and my love for Japan.

2. While in Japan, you spent a month doing a homestay with a Japanese family. How did your time with them affect your language learning?

Japanese meal with several bowls on a tray

I study language because I care about people, and by learning a language I’m opening up my heart to a whole new group of people, individuals I would not have been able to communicate with otherwise.

In addition to having an experience in a household different from my own, I learned a lot from my host family’s four children. By playing games and spending time with those kids, I was able to learn about the current development of the Japanese language and the ways that it is presently evolving, which I don’t believe would have been possible purely from a classroom setting.

3. What surprised you about Japanese culture?

What surprised me most was how welcoming everyone was. There are some major stereotypes about Asian countries and some stereotypes about those studying Asian languages and cultures, one of the most popular of which being that they are not welcoming to Westerners.

My experiences could not have been more different. They respected me enough to ask me questions about where I come from, and to open up their homes, and lives, to me while I was there. I was even personally invited to the preschool my host family’s children attend, and the teachers were thrilled that I was able to tell them about the United States and give them a little global perspective.

4. What advice do you have for other students looking to hone their language skills?

I think it’s important to remember why it is you’re studying a foreign language and to use it in your actual studies.

Do you love literature and want to read novels in their original language? Start off with a book of interest just above your reading level.  Are you a film or television buff? Watch programs in your target language with that same language’s subtitles (ex. a Japanese film with Japanese subtitles). Are you learning a language to talk to others and learn their stories? Try finding a target language speaking group near you.

Don’t let your “why” just be the end goal, make it a part of your language learning process.

Japanese building with body of water

5. What differences did you see between your language learning experience at University of Minnesota and in Japan?

The difference in language learning is really the time. While at the University of Minnesota, I attend roughly five hours of Japanese language classes every week, and that combined with my studying is the total language exposure I get. In Japan, that was completely different. The CLS Program was very intense in that we had about 15 hours of Japanese language courses each week, but that learning didn’t stop outside the classroom. Just a trip to the convenience store or coming home for dinner with my host family was a language learning experience in Japan.

You don’t stop being a student of language when you’re immersed in it.

BONUS QUESTION: What has been the biggest language learning obstacle you’ve faced? Any advice gathered from that experience that you’d now share with others?
Sydney in Japan posing with large mascot character

I started foreign language learning in middle school by learning Spanish. When I expressed an interest in learning Japanese as well, I received a lot of pushback from others, ranging from family to academic role models. Some said that it was just because I liked Japanese pop culture, while others told me that it wasn’t “profitable” to learn an Asian language.

I want to encourage others to go and study what you’re passionate about!

Don’t let anyone tell you that your motivation isn’t “good” enough or “academic” enough.

By going out and learning a language, you’re broadening your own horizons, and opening up your world to a whole new set of people, media, and philosophies that you might never have known otherwise! These benefits are yours, whether you’re learning a heritage language taken from your family, or if you’re studying the language your favorite singer speaks.

Japan landscape

What’s next for Sydney?

Currently in her third year of undergraduate studies, Sydney plans to graduate a year early this spring.  And while her career plans are still taking shape, her connections to Japan and its culture remain strong. She is in the process of applying for Fulbright Fellowship as well as and some other academic programs in Japan for next year, and hopes to continue her Japanese studies in grad schoola lifelong learner of the Japanese language!  You can follow her adventures @InternetSydney on Instagram.

Interested in Japanese-specific scholarships, university programs, or student testimonials? Visit our Lead with Japanese page to learn more. Or seeking funding for your next experience abroad? Check out our Grants & Scholarships page for information on federal programs such as the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship Program, administered by American Councils for International Education.

And, as always, don’t forget to share your language learning story with us @LeadWLanguages on social media.