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The Craft of World-Language Teaching

We have been discussing world language learning this month. Today, Gerhard Fischer, International and World Languages Education Consultant for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, discusses the craft of world language teachers.

by Gerhard Fischer

Jiro Ono has never done anything in his life but prepare sushi and develop his restaurant of only a dozen seats into a Michelin 3-star temple for sushi lovers. In his documentary, "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," David Gelb paints a wonderful portrait not only of the 85-year-old master sushi maker but also of his two sons, his suppliers at the fish market, and the training of his apprentices.

"It took me ten years before they even let me try to make egg sushi," says one of them. Ten years of intense preparation every day, learning to cut, carve, flavor, and whatever else makes a perfect sushi chef. Ten years before being allowed to try making egg sushi.

Jiro's dedication to perfection and mastery of his trade is rivaled by that of the vendors at the fish market, each of whom is a specialist in different kinds of fish. "I know how to make sushi," says Jiro, "but they know so much more about the fish we use in the restaurant than I do. I depend on them." His rice supplier was offered a lucrative contract by the Hyatt hotel chain but declined. "What good is it if they buy my rice but don't know how to cook it?" he asks and adds, "I would never sell rice to anyone without Jiro's permission." And at age 85, Jiro says he has never felt he wanted to do anything in life other than prepare sushi. "I am still learning to make perfect sushi," he says. "I have much more to learn."

This intense dedication to a craft may sound extreme to most of us, yet there are no shortcuts to perfection. I got engrossed in another documentary recently, "Wagner's Dream," that follows the staging of the Ring Cycle at the New York Metropolitan Opera. Again, the absolute dedication to detail and perfection from stage hands, carpenters, producers, and performers is about hard work, pride, and absolute attention to detail. Whether or not you like opera or appreciate Wagner, you will come away inspired by the level of professionalism of everyone involved in the production of the world's most challenging operatic work.

Most of us will not be able to perform at the level of these chefs, craftsmen, or artists. Some of our students, however, may have the kind of talent it takes to excel at what they do. It is our obligation as teachers to give them a chance and to pave the road for them. How we do that, how we want to bring out the best in our students, is the perennial crucial question in teacher education and in our education system. The study of the craft and the life of Jiro Ono, raises several interesting questions for our own craft, teaching languages, and the answers may help us refine what we do on a daily basis. In this model, assume you are the master and ask yourself the following questions:

Why do I do what I do?

  • What is my own personal interest in languages and cultures?
  • Why do I think my students should learn about other cultures and learn to speak their languages?

If we don't love what we do, we will not be the best teachers we can be. Imagine the sushi maker who still comes to work every day at age 85 loving every minute of it.

What can I do to become a better:

  • Speaker of my second, third, or fourth language?
  • Expert on other cultures?
  • Role model (master) to my students?

Whatever the minimum licensing expectations for language proficiency and study abroad may be, we should not be satisfied with the lowest expectations of ourselves. If we truly love what we do, we want to perfect our craft every day. This is not an expectation from the outside, it is our own expectation of ourselves.

If we live by the principles and the set of expectations that Jiro Ono has set for himself, we will indeed be the best role models for our students. We will not allow them to simply meet minimal expectations, but we will push them to do their absolute best because we ourselves do our absolute best. We show our students that we take pride in what we do, and we ask them to develop pride in what they do. This pride comes through accomplishment, through a sense of achievement, and from an accepted expectation that learning is both hard work and fun. It cannot be one or the other.

Before you call me naïve and ask me what planet I might be living on, let me tell you that I fully understand the environment in which we all operate. We will be facing a model of teacher evaluation that will be quite controversial. We will again be asked to demonstrate why it is important to learn and teach world languages, and we will be asked to craft our message differently for different audiences. We will, once again, be asked to define the value of our craft in terms of external reasons, the economic and the defense arguments. We understand that situation. But I maintain that living through all those conversations will be much easier if we have a clear sense of what we are about, and if it is clear to everyone inside and outside our classrooms that we take great pride in our craft.

The lessons we can learn from Jiro Ono are clear: We do what we do because we love what we do, because we are good at it, and because we will get even better. The alternative does not look too good to me.

Watch "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" and let me know which lessons you take away from it. "Wagner's Dream" should be next on your list, even if you have no interest whatsoever in German opera.

Gerhard Fischer regularly posts on Global Wisconsin.

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