Spanish professor Javier Gomez of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College also teaches Japanese — the only Japanese classes at a community college in the state.
He said it is a love for language that led him to grow beyond the romance languages of Spanish and French to master Japanese.
And just three years ago, he began teaching it at MGCCC’s Jackson County campus.
When asked how he picked up such a diverse set of language skills, he said, “I’ve trained all my life for this. When I was a kid, I’d listen to different languages and try to copy them. I’d tape people and mimic their accents. It was like my hobby.”
MGCCC offers his Japanese I and II online, so others in the state can share in learning the language that has four writing systems, two alphabets and characters that must be drawn in specific sequence. Writing Japanese is more of an art than a science.
But when a student completes the classes, they are able to write characters, speak phrases and communicate in the present and past tense.
Gomez, who has a master’s degree in language instruction and a doctorate in instructional technology, was born in Puerto Rico, so Spanish was his first language. His military family moved to New Jersey and he picked up English and later French. After a short military stint himself, he earned his bachelor’s with honors in Spanish from the University of Florida and taught for three years in Florida.
But it was the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity program, which provides teachers for overseas military schools, that he had the opportunity to study Japanese. He secured a job in Tokyo teaching English and upper-level French.
“As a linguist, I wasn’t going to lose this opportunity,” he said. He immersed himself in the Japanese culture, lived with a family one summer and took all the classes the University of Maryland University College campus in Tokyo had to offer. He then moved on to Japanese colleges for further instruction.
He lived and studied in Japan for 14 years. When he returned to the U.S. in 2012, Gomez had passed language proficiency exams offered by the Japanese government, and received certification from the DoDEA to teach Japanese.
He developed a curriculum for MGCCC, passed the approval of the department chairman and dean of instruction and MGCCC began offering his Japanese I and II in fall 2013.
Learning Japanese online
The walls of Gomez’s small office on the Gautier campus reflect his passion for both Spanish and Japanese.
On one wall he has a map of Puerto Rico with pins that denote each of the students he has taught from the island. Next to it is a black scroll representing Japan.
For his interview with the Sun Herald, he wore a lavender bow tie to honor the Japanese family that had hosted him in their home near the lavender fields of Northern Japan. He proudly shows a feature article written in a Japanese magazine about his summer with the family. In the pictures, he is working in a field wearing a broad-brimmed hat, fitting in with his host family.
Using the language frequently is so important in the learning process, he said.
“If you don’t speak, you don’t learn the language,” he said.
So how does an online student do it? That’s where his expertise in instruction technology helps.
Every week in Gomez’s online classes, students record themselves, answering prompts in Japanese. They upload their writing. They can come and meet with him if needed.
His students continue their studies at Mississippi State University or Ole Miss, which have upper-level Japanese classes.
His classes are popular with engineering students who want to work in Asian markets. They also are popular with Keesler airmen who have married into a Japanese family or are being stationed in Japan. Teens who love manga or anime and want to read the books in the native language take the classes.
One of his advanced students, Ashton Arocho, is enrolled in the MSU engineering program at the community college and plans to be an electrical engineer. He is learning all he can about European and Asian cultures, and plans to continue with Japanese and learn Chinese and German, because he wants to work in international business.
Not just Japanese
Gomez is watching the Hispanic community grow in Jackson County and sees a need beyond the Spanish classes he teaches in a classroom on campus.
He takes Spanish into the region as community service and teaches English as a second language for employees at Ingalls Shipbuilding, because of the influx of Hispanic workers there.
But he is also working to start a college-level ESL (English as a second language) class for students at MGCCC, something that could act as a pathway to help Hispanics make the transition to college, he said.
A college education will help Hispanic residents contribute more to the area and get better jobs, he said.
Gomez is Instructor of the Year this year at MGCCC’s Jackson County campus and the college ESL class is his passion, his platform, for his year.
“So we can connect with the community,” he said. “In the community, they come to me asking for an ESL class. I’m working with a proposal.”