An online search will show Japanese is often ranked one of the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn. It uses three different character-based alphabets (hiragana, katakana and kanji) and many of the characters, especially in kanji, have multiple meanings.
Yet three Evanston Township High School seniors – Jelena Djukic and identical twins Ryan and Tyler Pitts – showed they were up to the challenge. The ETHS trio beat 49 other teams this spring to secure a first place finish at the Illinois Japan Bowl, a competition with questions on Japanese language, recent history, culture and day-to-day living.
The team’s win in the Illinois competition, held virtually on March 19, advanced the Evanston students to the National Japan Bowl in Washington, which this year was held virtually April 21-22, though they did not place in that competition.
Tyler Pitts said he took Japanese in high school because he had two years of French in middle school and “hated” it. He tried Japanese, liked it and stuck with it. He described learning Japanese as “different,” rather than difficult. He said he plans to study information systems at DePaul University in the fall.
His brother Ryan said he was inspired to take Japanese because he enjoys playing Japanese mobile games (which he downloads in Japanese) and wanted to try to translate them. In the fall he plans to study health sciences, also at DePaul.
Jelena Djukic is bilingual in Serbian – another difficult language to learn if you do not grow up hearing it – and said she’s always liked Japanese food and culture. She’s a fan of the anime-inspired Teen Titans TV show and Dragon Ball, a Japanese media franchise. She said she liked the idea of studying something new. She plans to attend Oakton Community College this fall and would like to pursue a profession involving languages and translation.
All three have been taking Japanese at ETHS since freshman year and plan to continue studying Japanese in college. They have been studying and practicing for the Japan Bowl since September, according to their teacher, Margaret O’Connell.
ETHS has about 200 students studying Japanese across 10 class sections. The classes are taught by either O’Connell or Michael Van Krey, an ETHS teacher for 25 years.
The Illinois Japan Bowl is organized and hosted by a nonprofit organization, the Japan America Society of Chicago, which was founded in 1930. The group’s mission is “to create and promote friendships between Japanese and Americans through business, social, educational and cultural activities,” according to Executive Director Mitsukuni Baba.
The Illinois Japan Bowl began in 2015 for students to share their knowledge and hopefully develop a lifelong interest in the Japanese language, Baba said. Society members reach out to language departments at public, private and parochial high schools to interest the teachers, who in turn encourage their students to participate.
The society sends study guides to help students prepare for the wide variety of questions, which are developed by members. The contest is not open to native Japanese speakers.
ETHS has been competing in the bowl since 2019. This year, ETHS entered one team at each of the contest’s three experience levels, O’Connell said. The pandemic has had a big impact on bowl participation. In 2020, the most recent in-person bowl, there were 220 competitors. Last year 112 students competed and this year there were 130.
ETHS seniors taking fourth-year Japanese would normally have had an opportunity to participate in a school trip to visit Evanston’s sister school, Kokusai Joho High School, two hours north of Tokyo in the Niigata prefecture. In exchange, about 40 Japanese students would typically visit ETHS for a 10-day period, usually in March, and stay with host families.
This exchange program has been active for more than 30 years, except for 2001 due to 9/11 and 2021 and 2022 due to the pandemic.
“Last year we launched a pen pal program in lieu of our usual study abroad, since COVID halted our travel plans,” O’Connell said. “Students regularly come into class Facetime-ing their counterparts at our sister school, liking each other’s Instagram posts and some even send each other treats in the mail.”
‘Changing the face of who learns languages’
O’Connell, an ETHS graduate, said her personal history with Japanese started even before high school. Her family was a host family for a Japanese student, and she fell in love with Japanese culture.
“I went to a small liberal arts college with a very limited number of Japanese classes, but I had friendships in the international student community and studied abroad my junior year, so I was able to continue to develop my language,” O’Connell said. After college she lived in Japan for four years.
Asked if it had always been her dream to return to ETHS to teach Japanese, she responded, “It really was! Learning a language has enriched my life in ways I never could have imagined, and I am so thrilled to facilitate similar experiences for current ETHS students.
“I should also mention that Japanese 1 is now 70 to 75% students of color. I think we typically view language learning and study abroad as a ‘white thing’ because these are opportunities that are often only afforded to white people, and white people have a history of stealing other cultures for personal gain. It is a privilege to be a part of changing the face of who learns languages.”