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The success of a project using animation to teach the Japanese language earned Katherine Schubel ’06 (Holmdel, N.J.) the opportunity to present her work at the 19th Annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research.

Schubel, an English major who hopes to add a major in East Asian studies, worked all year under the guidance of Yoshihiko Ariizumi, assistant professor of foreign languages and literatures.

Schubel chose a three- to five-minute clip of anime, a style of Japanese animation, and showed it to beginning and intermediate Japanese classes with subtitles. Schubel and Ariizumi then reviewed with the class vocabulary and grammatical elements from the clip. After the review, the same clip was shown without subtitles and the students were asked to discuss how much they understood.

“This went far beyond what a textbook can offer,” says Schubel, an avid fan of anime since middle school. “Our text came with a CD-ROM and had sample conversations, but the conversations were very unnatural because they were squeezed to fit the grammatical and vocabulary sets the class was learning. Also, the speakers were unnaturally slow, so students didn’t get the context and cultural aspects of the conversation. They weren’t getting real dialogue.”

The anime exposes students to natural conversation and highlights more elements than just vocabulary and grammar.

“A lot of programs contain very useful cultural context,” she says. “For instance, sometimes in an animated program a lot of the Japanese language is implied – there are a lot of things going on beneath what is being said and it is hard to notice. But in anime, if someone says ‘I did a great job,’ the other characters will give him a funny look. In class, the professor would point out the funny look as the result of the comment not being modest enough.”

Schubel’s project boosted the students’ language skills in ways Ariizumi thought were impossible.

“This is one of the breakthroughs in language teaching,” he says. “Traditionally, those kinds of videos are only used for advanced students, especially for Japanese, which is three to four times harder than European languages. Traditionally they would be used for high-proficiency students. But to use them from the very first day of language instruction, it’s a very different, very innovative method. The students in class, their phrases were amazingly well-pronounced and their comprehension was incredible.”

He notes that the intermediate class’ field trip to a Japanese restaurant in Allentown, Pa., was far more successful this year than in previous years.

“Usually one of the waitresses is a Japanese-speaking person and she tries to communicate with the students, but their communication skills are just too basic so she cannot speak with them. But this year, our conversation was almost seamless,” he explains. “I asked her about her family situation, details about the children, the family business, and living in this location. When the waitress and I finished talking, I asked the students about the conversation and almost 100 percent of the class knew the details of it. Usually, they are not prepared for that kind of listening, but this was really amazing because they were significantly more advanced than the previous group, which didn’t use the videos.”

Even more interesting, adds Ariizumi, is that the beginning group, with only two semesters of Japanese, attained greater abilities than the intermediate one.

Schubel credits the class members’ skills to the fact that they found anime fun and interesting.

“I’ve definitely found that it increases student motivation,” she says. “I think that native language programming is a good learning tool for any language, but anime is particularly useful for Japanese. It’s a huge cultural phenomenon. This genre makes up something like 40 percent of Japanese television programming and American people have become very interested recently.”

She should know. Schubel was a fan before anime hit the mainstream and while it was entertaining and educated her about Japanese culture, she unknowingly learned a lot of the Japanese language.

“From watching hours and hours of these cartoons, it seems I can understand or get the gist of at least 50 percent of the conversation,” she says.

Ariizumi says Schubel is far and away the most advanced Japanese language learner at Lafayette.

“In her fourth semester as a language learner [this spring], she [had] the understanding and oral proficiency comparable to a fourth-year student,” he says. “She has extensively watched and listened to anime so she can understand many more things beyond the course content. One of the benefits she has gained from her experiences is that her learning has been significantly, positively affected.

“Tens of thousands of Americans watch anime, but 99.9 percent of people cannot gain language skills from just watching. Katie is more conscious of the learning process because this research experience has taught her to be a better learner; she is grasping bigger elements in the medium.”

Ariizumi says the project, which he terms a collaborative partnership, had other positive results. Schubel continually made suggestions to her professor about incorporating new exercises, such as watching the anime clips with subtitles, into his class. Research involving the program is being compiled into a handbook of sorts for other language instructors.

“Not only did she [create] sample lesson plans for the classroom,” he says, “but she developed a manual to help instructors organize their own activities.

“My philosophy about student researchers is to give them great freedom to develop their own research and agenda, with my participation. With that freedom, she chose to develop a manual instead of some other philosophically-based research paper – she wanted to do something more practical for people to use instead of generating very generic theories.”

For Schubel, the research project was life changing.

“I think carefully looking at someone else’s culture makes you more conscious of your own,” she says. “Just by contrasting the two, I feel I understand my own culture better now that I’ve looked at Japanese. Now it’s so much more interesting to me; it’s opened my eyes to the outside world and by looking outside of me, I think I know the inside more clearly.”

Schubel is president of Anime Club and lives on the Japanese interest floor.

Independent study courses are among several major opportunities at Lafayette that make the College a national leader in undergraduate research, Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Thirty-nine students were accepted to present their research at this year’s conference.

Categorized in: Academic News