April 2, 2009                              
Contact: Emanuel Costache ’09
Media Relations Intern

AMHERST, Mass.—Wako Tawa, professor of Asian languages and civilizations at Amherst College, has been awarded a grant of $150,000 from the secondary education program of the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations to support her efforts to strengthen the teaching of “category four” languages, especially at the secondary level. Category four languages are those that are especially difficult for native speakers of English to master; they  include Japanese, Arabic, Chinese and Korean.

The A.V. Davis funding—which will be disbursed over three years—will, first and foremost, enable Tawa to host a conference for high school and college-level Japanese teachers at Amherst this summer. The grant will also help her spur a broader conversation about issues related to the pre-college teaching of Japanese and the articulation problem between the pre-college and college levels among teachers of all category four languages, she said.

Tawa explained that although interest and enrollments in category four languages are growing at both the pre-college and college levels, teaching these languages has not been seriously reviewed and reflected upon, especially at the pre-college level. To complicate matters, many teachers of Japanese, both at the secondary school and college levels, teach category four languages with the same communicative and proficiency-based methods that have become popular for teaching Western languages, such as French and Spanish.

Tawa has long argued that a solid understanding of grammar is what lays the foundation for attaining a high proficiency level in Japanese, especially when the learner’s native language is as different from Japanese as English is. To that end, she has developed the “stage-step” method for teaching and learning Japanese grammar, as well as textbooks that guide students in learning Japanese grammar and other skills in a step-by-step manner. The A.V. Davis Foundations welcomed the opportunity to help disseminate her approach and contribute to the national conversation about category four language teaching and learning in the United States. “Learning grammar is like creating the blueprint for building a house—it is a critical part of the process,” Tawa said. “Unfortunately, the word ‘grammar’ has a negative ring in today’s foreign language teaching and learning, but my experience confirms that even high school students want to learn solid Japanese grammar in order to achieve a high proficiency level in Japanese.”

Based in Jacksonville, Fla., the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations are a national philanthropic organization established through the generosity of the late American industrialist Arthur Vining Davis. The foundations’ purpose is to provide financial assistance, primarily in the areas of private higher education, secondary education, graduate theological education, health care and public television. Davis, the organization’s namesake, was an 1888 graduate of Amherst and a lifetime supporter of his alma mater, contributing, for example, to the construction of Davis Hall. More recently—in 2005—the college received a grant from the foundations to support the A.V. Davis Teaching Laboratory in the new Geology and Earth Sciences Building.