Professor helps set up Japanese degree program in Cuba

York Professor Norio Ota, coordinator of the Japanese and Korean sections in York’s Department of Languages, Literatures & Linguistics (DLLL), recently conducted a four-week faculty training seminar in the Faculty of Foreign Languages (FLEX) at the University of Havana. This was his third visit to the Japanese language program in Cuba.

“This visit was particularly important, because the Japanese language has been given the status of one of the second languages, same as Italian, and the degree program in Japanese studies will commence in February 2011,” says Ota. “I am very happy to take part in this project.”

Right: Norio Ota, centre, at his farewell party in Cuba

Ota was asked to teach five courses – Teaching of Japanese as a Foreign Language; Japanese Linguistics; Culture & History; Translation & Interpretation; and Classical Japanese. He also taught faculty how to use Moodle for creating quizzes and tests and writing syllabuses The main focus of the seminar was on curriculum development and on writing syllabuses in preparation for the upcoming degree program, says Ota. He has been advocating a modular approach for language teaching, in which interdependent modules enhance each other (synergy) and textbooks are eventually abolished. Writing their own syllabus for each module without relying on textbooks is something new to the faculty in Cuba, but Ota hopes that this approach will also improve other language courses, since each faculty member teaches two languages at FLEX.

In addition, Ota delivered two used laptops donated by York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies and a new scanner donated by the Japanese Studies Program in the DLLL, which is currently a non-degree program. Each participant of the seminar received a memory stick which contained all the instructional materials and some new software. Ota says he installed all of his Web materials with Apache and Moodle on each laptop, so that students and faculty members would be able to use the Web-based instructional materials he had developed for York’s Japanese Studies Program.

“This is necessary because Internet access is almost non-existent in Cuba,” says Ota. The Cuban faculty members have been working on a project of adding Spanish words and explanations to Ota’s Japanese-English materials. Ota anticipates that this would attract more students to take Japanese as a second language in the future.

In the culture and history classes, Ota focused on the period around the Meiji Restoration (1868) to show how modern Japan was born out of civil wars. He also screened two samurai films directed by Yôji Yamada depicting two samurai warriors who lived lives that were quite different from the stereotypical bushido-type samurai’s life during the Meiji Restoration. “It is important to counter bushido stereotypes in presenting Japanese culture and history,” says Ota, who was also invited by Gilberto Diaz-Santos, chair of the English Department at the University of Havana, to give a talk in English to students who were studying English at FLEX.

His lecture, "Real Human Relationships Beyond Cross-cultural Communication", was interactive in nature. Most students were quite interested in the topic and offered opinions on questions such as what kind of criteria both male and female students had for selecting their spouses.

Ota has already been invited to visit Cuba again next May and plans to invite University of Havana Professor Susana María García Rivero to York for four weeks this fall, from Oct. 12 to Nov. 6, to observe and participate in the courses offered in the Japanese Studies Program.

“This opportunity has become a great incentive for the Cuban faculty to work harder and make extra efforts in creating a better program, courses and instructional materials. I believe that education should give students and teachers hope in the future,” says Ota, who has been trying to set up a degree program in Japanese studies at York. He says this project helps him to develop various future courses and curricula as well.

For more information, visit the Japanese Studies Program @ York Web site.