Forest Grove students strive to perfect their skills in Japanese calligraphy

Flinging the classroom door open just after the bell rang, hundreds of Forest Grove High School students filled the halls after finishing their first Thursday back in school.

Two teens didn't have time to grasp the momentary freedom, however, as they remained hunkered in their seats, writing Japanese characters.

Freshman Creighton Townsend and sophomore Amanda French plunked down to take an intensive 40-word Japanese language test on Sept. 14. It was intended to quantify the success rate of a new way of teaching Kanji, the Japanese written language.

The new method, called 'imaginative recall,' involves using detailed stories to solidify in students' memory the marks and slashes that form words in Kanji.

The pictograph uses four squares, which in Kanji mean 'mouth,' centered around a stick figure which means 'big.'

Laurence Wiig, a teacher of Chinese/Japanese Kanji characters at Portland Community College, set up a scenario for the students.

'A St. Bernard is killed and cooked for four hungry mouths sitting around a table,' said Wiig. 'That's how you know how to write (the word for) 'utensil.''

Wiig, who moderated the test, used the new method over the summer to teach 15 students from Japanese language classes at FGHS.

Wiig learned about the imaginative recall method two years ago while attending an American Consul of Teachers of Foreign Languages workshop in Boston, Mass.

He then tried it out on some of the students from first- and second-year Japanese language classes over an eight hour memorization session.

Townsend, who's 6-foot-2 at age 14, moaned quietly to himself as he rubbed his forehead, racking his memory for answers and sliding his fingers through his tousled hair. He struggled to write the Kanji word for 'olden times' in calligraphy.

Sitting close by, French bent over to study her answers. A streak of dyed blonde hair woven among dark brunette locks cascaded down her shoulder against her black silk haori, a traditional Japanese robe.

To speakers of Latin based languages, the strokes of Kanji - a written language composed of 2,000 common words originating from the shores of China 1,500 years ago - is beautiful but can be confusing, as each pictograph usually tends not to look anything like what it means. Each group of marks and slashes can have a variety of connotations, depending on where it is in a sentence.

Because one stroke of the pen can mean the difference between 'tree' and 'body,' it can be tricky to decipher words, even for students from Japan.

'For homework, you'd go home and write one word 300 times,' said Sandy Garcia, a Japanese language teacher at the local high school. 'And if you messed up, you'd have to write them all out again.'

Garcia studied Japanese at Waseda University in Tokyo during the 1980s. She said this type of teaching does not leave enough distinction between words in a students' memory, making it difficult to remember one word with an extra slash over another.

By using alternative methods to memorize Kanji, students can learn an aspect of Japanese culture and art while studying its language. That helps students feel closer to a nation halfway across the world.

'I don't see myself living here when I grow up,' said Townsend, who studied Kanji for a year at Neil Armstrong Middle School before attending Forest Grove High. 'I want to work for a technology firm overseas.'

'It's an endurance test to think in Japanese,' noted their teacher, Garcia. French saw another side.

'To me it poses a challenge,' she said. 'You have to have a drive - a will to learn it.'

When the test was over, French had spelled out 17 of 40 words correctly, while Townsend had 12 right. After both received a prize, French mused out loud about how to further immerse herself in a language and culture she loves.

'I should have worn this shirt I own,' she said. 'It says, 'Now accepting applications for Japanese boyfriend' in Japanese.'

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