By JULIE GREENE
The Herald-Mail of Hagerstown
BOONSBORO, Md. (AP) — Ayako Shiga knows how difficult it can be to learn a foreign language.
When she was growing up in Tokyo, she failed her first semester of English in middle school.
During a break that semester, she went to visit her father in Australia and couldn’t answer the waiter when he asked her, in English, how old she was, because she didn’t understand the question.
Shiga said that last experience motivated her to learn English and apply to be a high school exchange student in America.
Today, she puts to work her own experiences learning a difficult foreign language by helping Boonsboro High School students learn Japanese. Shiga — Washington County Public Schools’ only Japanese language teacher — was named the school system’s 2013-14 Teacher of the Year on April 17.
The award is sponsored by the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
“When I was in high school and when I came here as an exchange student, I wasn’t a successful learner, I felt. I felt I could have done better,” Shiga said.
As a result, Shiga said, she thought there were ways she could make learning easier for others.
“And that’s when I decided to become a language teacher,” said Shiga, 35, who lives in Chambersburg, Pa.
She began her study of applied linguistics at the University of Hawaii, and then earned a master’s degree, for teaching English as a second language, from Hawaii Pacific University.
After teaching in Hawaii for more than a year, she moved to the Tri-State area to be closer to her boyfriend — now her fiancΘ — and got a job with Washington County Public Schools in 2004 teaching English to students for whom English was a second language.
In 2005, Shiga’s supervisor asked her if she would be interested in starting a Japanese language program for the school system.
Shiga said she’d always wanted to teach Japanese, though it was hard work establishing the program. She worked on the curriculum and assessments, and advocated for the program while continuing to teach English. She also spent three summers studying at Columbia University to earn a second master’s degree, this one in Japanese pedagogy.
During the Japanese language program’s first year, in 2006-07, Shiga had about 30 students at Boonsboro High.
Now, she teaches Japanese to about 100 students a year.
That is approximately 10 percent of the students in Maryland public schools who are studying Japanese, according to a Maryland State Department of Education world language enrollment report.
“Japanese is definitely a difficult language to learn,” Shiga said. The U.S. Department of Defense classified Japanese, along with languages such as Arabic and Chinese, as category IV languages, the most difficult to learn, she said.
“I’m excited to see how many students are learning Japanese, despite the challenge,” said Shiga, who is to begin teaching an advanced placement Japanese class in the next school year.
Information from: The Herald-Mail of Hagerstown, Md., http://www.herald-mail.com
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)