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By Juleyka Lantigua
As any friend of mine will tell you, I am a huge supporter/lover/believer/consumer of all things Japanese. From their curiously exotic snack food (think shrimp-flavored chips) to their mind-bending fashion trends (hey, Gwen Stefani, I chatted up some Harajuku girls waaaay before you put them in your video) to their admirable sense of honor and loyalty to family. I was lucky enough to have lived in the Land of the Rising Sun some years ago, and have returned several times since my soul sister is a hip Tokyoite.

So imagine my unfettered delight upon learning that in the heart of Quisqueya Heights (the Dominican epicenter in the U.S.) an enterprising and visionary tenth-grade teacher named Keiko Takenaka is teaching boys and girls to speak Japanese.

At New Heights Academy, a charter school on Amsterdam Avenue and 150th Street, Japanese is the only foreign language offered to students whose classes are conducted in a tailored combination of English and Spanish, depending on their language strengths.

Besides fundamentals in math, science, English and social studies, all 10th and 11th graders are required to complete the Japanese language program. ‘‘Being bilingual or trilingual is an extraordinarily marketable skill, and it is important to us that we equip our high school graduates with many competitive advantages to help them succeed in college and the work environment,’’ Stacy Winitt, the school’s founder and executive director, told a Japanese newspaper recently. 

Many of us will no doubt agree with that sentiment, while scratching our heads as to why pick Japanese….

The answer: phonetics!

Much like Spanish, which is one of the native tongues spoken by many of the Academy’s students who are 82% Latino, spoken Japanese is entirely phonetic: what you see is what you get. You pronounce words almost exactly as they are written.

Arigato. (Thank you.)
Watashi wa America-jin. (I am American)
Ja ne. (See you later.)

In choosing Japanese, Winitt-san and her staff also considered the insular nature of Washington Heights, which is predominantly Latino in culture.
‘‘Not only did I want my students to learn a new language, but I wanted the opportunity to expose them to a new culture as well,’’ she said.

The similarities between Japanese and Spanish sounds and vowels have been a big encouragement to the students. “They can speak better. Their pronunciation is way better than other English-as-a-first-language students,’’ Takenaka-san said.

What’s more, in October 2008, the United States-Japan Foundation awarded New Heights a grant of $15,000 to build a Japanese resource library, filled with literature, new textbooks, software, and visual aids.


Well done and hooray!!

And domo arigato Takenaka-san and Winitt-san!

Juleyka Lantigua is a writer whose work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers around the country.

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