Speaking the language of sisters

Feb. 26, 2013 @ 08:05 AM

The students in the third-floor classroom of Durham Tech’s SOUTHbank Building sat attentively, listening to instructor Gwen Barclay-Toy, their backpacks by their feet, their pens poised in their hands.

They followed her instructions carefully, filling out forms Monday, the first day of classes. The forms were simple, but they were a bit of a challenge nevertheless — they were in English.

The 30 students had just arrived Sunday from Toyama, Japan, and the Toyama College of Foreign Languages. “After about 20 hours of flying,” said student Yumi Tamura, “Everyone is pretty tired. But we are very excited, too.”

The students were plunging into three weeks of intense English-language study as part of a Sister Cities program hosted by Durham Tech’s Center for the Global Learner.

“This has been about a year in the planning,” said H. Brady Surles, the president of Sister Cities of Durham, which helped organize the visit. “They called and asked what did we think about organizing a language immersion program for their students? We thought it was a great idea.”

A city of more than 400,000, Toyama is one of Durham’s five sister cities scattered across the world. The College of Foreign Languages there is for students who have studied languages for at least six years, in junior high and high school.

To help increase their students’ skill, the school established a study-abroad program in 1985, said Kuniaki Kawahata, one of two faculty members with the group. “It’s a way for them to see how good their English is and to make it better,” he said.

The students at first came to the U.S., but after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the school decided to send them instead to Christchurch, New Zealand — “for safety reasons,” Kawahata said.

The group of students were there two years ago when a powerful earthquake hit the city. Twelve Toyama students died.

“Last year, we decided not to do a study abroad program, but this year we tried to re-start it,” Kawahata said. “Not in New Zealand, of course, but somewhere. The most reasonable choice was Durham. There are many people [in Toyama] who know about this city.”

The program, which in addition to the language classes includes a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, the Duke Lemur Center and various museums, was a perfect fit for Durham Tech, said Constanza Gomez-Joines, the executive director of the school’s Center for the Global Learner.

“It really fits with our mission,” she said. “We’re trying to broaden our international scope. This is a great way to do that.”

The Durham Tech community understands “that it is, indeed a global village, no matter how much of a cliché that is,” said Bill Ingram, the president of the school. “We must reach out globally and provide opportunities for our students. At the same time, we can provide opportunities for other students.”

Coming to America for the first time was, in fact, a great opportunity for 20-year-old Yuji Hosokawa.

“I like American movies,” he said with a big smile. “I’d like to live here. I like how big the houses are. Everything is so big.”

Hosokawa became interested in learning English several years ago, when he started to tweet with English speakers on Twitter. “I thought then, if I could speak English better, I could meet many more foreign people. I want to do that.”

Mitsuki Fujisawa wants to learn English so she can teach the language to “little children.”

And, she added, “I want to make friends all over the world. This is a good way to do it.”