Professor Yuko Otsuka is an associate professor in the Department of English Studies at Sophia University, specializing in linguistics, Tongan, and Polynesian Languages. She was born and raised in Japan and graduated from International Christian University where she studied teaching Japanese as a foreign language. In her third year of university she joined the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers and spent two years in Tonga teaching Japanese. It was that experience that inspired her future career in academics. After returning from Tonga, she taught Japanese at a language school in Japan and then decided to go to graduate school. She attended Oxford University where she earned her M.Phil. and D.Phil. in General Linguistics. Recently she sat down with the editor of our student journal Angles to discuss her background, her career and her teaching philosophy.
Angles Editors: Originally you studied to be a Japanese language teacher. Why did you shift to linguistics?
Professor Otsuka: That was by accident. I really enjoyed living in Tonga and I wanted to go back there, but I wanted to work for the Ministry of Education in Tonga, so I thought having a master’s degree would help, so I decided to go to graduate school in Oxford. Then my professor at graduate school was really fascinated by the fact there is a Japanese girl who speaks Tongan. There aren’t many people who speak Tongan other than Tongan people and there aren’t any Tongan linguists doing this sort of work. My supervisor suggested that I analyze Tongan using this theory because no one else has ever done that before. I wasn’t planning to do a Ph.D, but at the end of the master’s course, my professor asked when I was going to do a Ph.D. I wasn’t sure, but I also thought that if I went to teach at a university I could also bring jobs to Tonga which might be a better contribution, and that’s how I made the switch from teaching Japanese to linguistics.
Professor Otsuka specializes in formal syntax and theoretical linguistics. “I use a very formal approach, a theory called generative grammar, a theory that was invented or proposed by Noam Chomsky.” After leaving Oxford, Professor Otsuka moved to Hawai’i where she took a position teaching linguistics. She taught there for sixteen years before making a change and coming to Sophia University in the Fall of 2016.
Angles Editors: You went to ICU for university. Can you tell us about your life as a student and some of the courses that interested you while you were there?
Professor Otsuka: When I went to ICU it was quite different. It was a very unique, small school. The classes I really remember learning something was when I was able to do research papers. I even took introduction to law and we were able to choose any topic. One day, I was wandering in the library and I found a story about children with no nationality in Okinawa. It’s about the nationality law. Basically in the U.S. system, if you were born in the states you get citizenship and on the other hand in Japan if your father is Japanese then you get citizenship, no matter where you were born. But in Okinawa there were many kids that were born between Japanese moms and U.S. soldiers. Technically they were born on non-U.S. soil and their fathers were not Japanese so they didn’t get any citizenship anywhere, so they were stuck. Then they changed the law in Japan so that you get citizenship through the mother’s blood line as well. That was really fascinating. You can learn something and it will stick with you. So, I like those kind of classes rather than you can get an ‘A’ if you memorize and pass the exam.
Angles Editors: Would you say that similar the kind of classes you like to teach?
Professor Otsuka: Yes, the classes I teach are like that. I want my students to think and be able to express their ideas. I want them to remember and not memorize. I have a six-year old daughter and the other day she was very frustrated with this math exam. And she asked “Why do we have to study?” She wants to get it right. And I said, “The reason why we go to school is to practice thinking.” The goal is not to get it right, but to get used to the idea of thinking. I think at the university level that’s even more important. The goal is not to get an ‘A+’, the goal is to cultivate your thinking ability.
Angles Editors: Before you went to ICU did you have experience learning English at a high level? Personally, I think it’s very difficult to learn a language at university.
Professor Otsuka: I didn’t have any overseas experience until I went to Tonga and Tonga isn’t even an English-speaking country. I started to study English just like any other Japanese middle school at the age of thirteen, but I really liked it. To me it’s like decoding a mystery. I really liked to use the language to communicate with people.
Angles Editors: We’ve both gone through the teacher training course. As a senpai of language teaching and learning, do you have any advice for students studying English?
Professor Otsuka: I think you need to have some purpose of why you want to be fluent in English. When I was in high school I admired people who could speak like a native speaker in terms of how they sound. And I think some Japanese students are mesmerized by the pronunciation but not paying attention to what they are saying. As I grew older, I started to listen and think about all of these important people from all over the world, making speeches in English with very strong accents, but you listen and then you get touched by what they are saying. At some point I started to realize, it’s not how you sound, but it’s what you are saying and being fluent in English is not being able to pronounce words, but using English to convey your ideas. Unless you have something you want to say and someone you want to tell that to, you won’t become fluent.
Angles Editors: Is there something in your field right now that you are particularly interested in or you something you think is a hot topic you want people to know about?
Professor Otsuka: What I do is very technical, but recently Chomsky’s idea that language acquisition is an innate ability and species specific, is being challenged by others. I like pursuing this line of approach, but I’m interested to see if this tradition will continue to be supported in the future.
Angles Editors: You said that your field is very technical, so what books or articles or books would you recommend to students interested in learning more about your field?
Professor Otsuka: There is a book called The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker. He is a Cognitive Scientist. This is the book that introduces the idea of Chomskian Grammar to complete novices. You will learn a lot about what is language and how this theory was developed. If you’re interested in that subject, then you should read it and then you can take my courses and go deeper into the theoretical side. The Pinker book is really entertaining and he’s a very good writer. There are a lot of useful anecdotes. He’s interested in how the mind works, how the mind processes language. He explains things very easily and in a fun way.
Angles Editors: Finally, do you have any message or advice for future students?
Professor Otsuka: What I tell my students is that university is where you control your learning. And unless you take initiative you don’t learn much. I also strongly believe that students learn from each other as much as from the instructor. So I want my classroom to be an open environment where everybody respects everyone. Everyone is an expert in something. Everybody knows something better than anyone else the class, including the professor, because of your background and experience. The classroom is where you share that expertise and learn from each other and enrich your life. University is only the beginning so it’s very important to try and expand your horizons when you’re in it. Find what you enjoy and learn what you can. A university is a universe. You need to be curious and take initiative and then you will find something.
Professor Otsuka teaches topics in Linguistics, Grammatical Theory, and a seminar in Formal Syntax. Take her classes to learn more about her ideas and her approach to linguistics and language theory.