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Two Teens Learn Each Other’s Language, and More

Michigan-Japan Exchange Program Cultivates Cultural Understanding

In late June, Eryn Schell left her small community along the Thornapple River to live in Shiga Prefecture, Japan for nearly three weeks. Eryn traveled nearly 24 hours with a cohort of peers from the Michigan-Shiga High School Exchange Program — an arm of the Japan Center for Michigan Universities (JCMU.)

Earlier this month, her new friend from Shiga came to stay with Eryn’s family for two weeks, in an exchange that was about much more than learning language.

Once in Shiga, Eryn realized that she was a long way away – 6,000 miles to be exact. And she was ready to jump in the deep end.

“I didn’t know what to expect but I had learned the language so I wanted to live it,” said Eryn, a sophomore at Thornapple Kellogg High School. She also wants to study it: this semester, Eryn’s mother drives her to Lansing Community College for her sixth hour for a Japanese language class.

Eryn had already aced two academic calendar years of online Japanese through Michigan Virtual University, and could even understand the Japanese three “alphabets” of script — hiragana, katakana and kanji.

Chris and Jeri Schell, Eryn’s parents, welcomed the opportunity for their oldest daughter to join the Michigan-Shiga High School Exchange, for the cultural learning.

Words of the World: Learning Foreign Language, is a new series of School News Network focusing on the importance of teaching language in an increasingly global culture.

Since 1968, Michigan and Shiga Prefecture have maintained a sister-state relationship. Both prioritize the protection and preservation of Lake Biwa, the largest freshwater lake in Japan, and Michigan’s Great Lakes, the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world.

In the two-way exchange program, Eryn lived with the family of Sawa Mekata, 16, who in turn stayed with Eryn’s family in Middleville for the first two weeks in September. A student from Byron Center High School also participated in the Michigan-Shiga exchange, according to program officials.

Thornapple Kellogg sophomore Eryn Schell (center) in Shiga Prefecture, Japan, where she lived with Sawa Mekata (right) for nearly three weeks

The World Is Your Oyster

In our modern world of instant everything, it seems kind of fitting that we can learn language with a click of a mouse.

Nowadays, there is a big push in education to help any student reach any subject at any time, according to Scott Szczepanek, Thornapple Kellogg’s foreign language department head.

“Online learning lets students work these classes into their schedule when they might be able fit them or the school may not offer them, like Eryn’s Japanese class,” Szczepanek said.

When looking to fulfill the state’s two-year language equivalency requirement for graduation, Eryn wasn’t enthusiastic about learning Spanish or French, both offered at Thornapple Kellogg. She wanted something different, to study a less common foreign language. Eryn latched onto studying Japanese because of her parents’ happy adventures there.

Chris Schell often traveled to Japan for his former employer, Philips Semiconductors, and Jeri tagged along one time. They particularly valued the time they spent with close friends who live in Japan.

“It struck me nearly instantaneously that this place is amazing,” said Jeri, a physician’s assistant who speaks fluent Spanish from her years of living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and who lived in Mexico as a foreign exchange student in high school. “It’s amazing how clean and safe Japan is.”
Chris, now with GE Aviation, marveled at the temples, shrines, sushi, politeness and friendliness he found in Japan. “We really loved the culture; the respect that is shown to everyone is powerful, almost transcendent. Japan believes in a polite society and they live it every day.”

Beyond The Tourist Trails

Once in Shiga, the 15 Michigan high schoolers and two chaperones grew acclimated to the region by visiting Miidera Temple in Otsu, one of the largest temples in Japan, and Lake Biwa Museum, a lake-based museum and aquarium.

Soon after, Eryn connected with her host family and followed Sawa to her public school, Zeze, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Oftentimes, “club activities,” like Sawa’s badminton, kept students there until 7 p.m. Eryn marveled that the students spend their entire day in their homeroom with the teachers switching classes and moving from room to room.

Thornapple Kellogg sophomore Eryn Schell and Japanese exchange student Sawa Mekata visit RiverTown Crossings in Grandville

Japanese Exposure

Eryn experienced many firsts there, such as attending a bunkasai, a Japanese high school student cultural festival. She and Sawa visited the beaches of Lake Biwa in the regional capital Otsu; a pancake restaurant called Okonomiyaki; and Hikone Castle, one of the 12 remaining original castles in Japan built in the early 1600s.

Eryn found the traditional Japanese house of Sawa’s grandparents “very nice,” with its tatami mat flooring, sliding doors and wooden carvings.

Sawa introduced Eryn to seasonal fruit that was new to her, and to some traditional fermented food like tempeh.
Though unfamiliar, it all felt lovely to Eryn — unlike her virtual Japanese language class at Thornapple Kellogg.

That all felt so hard at first, Eryn said, because she didn’t have a real-life teacher to pepper with questions or consult about the subtler parts of pronunciation.

“It was painful,” Eryn joked, but added seriously, “My dad helped me figure out a lot of the technical part, and my mom told me that I had to be a self-motivated because there’s no teacher standing in front of the room watching or making you do something.”

Immersion is the truest way to learn a language, according to Szczepanek.

“There is so much that you can gain from being surrounded at all times by the language and culture. The necessity of having to negotiate a new language and culture is often the best motivator to bring new learners out of their shell and gain confidence and comfort with the language.”

Exchange student Sawa Mekata and Thornapple Kellogg sophomore Eryn Schell stayed with one another in Shiga Prefecture, Japan and Middleville

American Teen Spirit

Once in Michigan in September, Sawa put into practice her six years of English language schooling as she shadowed Eryn at Thornapple Kellogg high school. The Midwestern American dialect was harder for Sawa to understand than she imagined, but she got the universal language of niceness.

“Michigan is a nice place, with nice people,” Sawa said while dining at Osaka Japanese steak house in Grand Rapids.

The Schell family ratcheted up the adventure – poking around Chicago, strolling the Magnificent Mile and gorging on deep-dish pizza. In West Michigan, they romped around Tunnel Beach in Holland, RiverTown Crossings, and made sure Sawa also experienced many firsts.

“It’s interesting to see what is very common in Japan that Eryn has never done, and what’s common here that Sawa’s never done,” Chris said. “Sawa’s never had a campfire or s’mores, never been through a carwash, had a prime rib at a piano bar.”

On Sawa’s last night in Middleville, the Schell family transformed their home into an over-enthusiastic Halloween extravaganza with pumpkins, autumnal apple-baking, over-the-top decorations and wicked fun for all.

“I really wanted Sawa to have one last first –- so we’re doing Halloween and everything that comes with it,” Eryn said. “We’re carving pumpkins, making sugar cookies, baking apple crumble and Sawa’s making miso soup. I love this time of year.”

As Sawa wrapped up her exchange experience, all the Japanese exchange students and their host families were scheduled to attend a farewell dinner with Mitsuhiro Wada, the Consul General of Japan in Detroit, covering Michigan and Ohio.
All of that sums up the huge benefits of learning a new language, said Szczepanek.

“What’s wonderful about learning another language to me is the ability to take on a different perspective in the world,” he said. “There is so much about a person’s outlook on the world that is a product of their language and culture.
“Studying those areas allows for greater knowledge, tolerance, and appreciation of different cultures than just one’s own.”


Japan Center for Michigan Universities

Eryn Schell and Sawa Mekata share a love of kayaking as they both live near large freshwater lakes – Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest freshwater lake, and Michigan’s Great Lakes, the world’s largest group of freshwater lakes
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