Faculty in Focus: Sylvia Yamada, Lower School English Language Learner Teacher

The Graded Gazette

You are a polyglot! How many languages do you speak, and how did you learn each one? 

I speak four languages. Since I was born and raised in Manila, I grew up speaking Filipino (Tagalog) and English, which are the official languages of the Philippines. (More than a hundred languages are spoken in the Philippines, and I speak only two of them!) Because English is the language of instruction in schools, all my classes were taught in English, with the exception of Filipino language classes. 

Japanese (called Nihongo in Japan) was the third language that I learned. Fluency in the language was paramount to my university studies in Japan, and I had one year to attain it. As a result, the learning process was a highly stressful, high-stakes endeavor for me. I complemented the full-day Nihongo classes with late nights of rote repetition of Kanji (Japanese character) strokes. I recorded myself reading passages out loud to check my fluency and pronunciation. I watched local news and soap operas and kept track of Nihongo lyrics when I sang in karaoke bars. I also joined the university’s Kendo (a martial art in which practitioners wield bamboo swords) Club and practiced speaking Nihongo with my clubmates. However, not having had much opportunity to use the language in the last twenty years has significantly impacted my proficiency.

Learning my fourth language, Portuguese, was a much more relaxed and enjoyable process. Whatever language proficiency goals I had were purely self-imposed. My familiarity with Spanish (high-frequency nouns in Tagalog are of Spanish origin) gave me confidence while learning Portuguese. I took private lessons for half a year, watched the news, and read a lot. I enjoyed watching Mexican novelas dubbed in Portuguese because the voice actors’ clear enunciation was just right for beginning Portuguese learners like me. After two years in Brazil, I decided to take the CELPE-Bras Portuguese proficiency test. I prepared for it by drafting responses to prompts I made up myself, composing letters to specific organizations even though I had no intention of sending them, and recording myself in simulated interviews. When I took the test, I did well enough to be classified at the intermediário-superior level.


What was it like growing up in the Philippines?

Like most kids, I constantly looked forward to school breaks and celebrations. In the summer, my siblings and I would spend a few days at our cousins’ houses, go to the beach, or stay at our ancestral house outside of Manila. I have a big extended family, and we partook in many family get-togethers where there was always food and music. I grew up listening to my mom playing the piano, and the sound that she creates is a particular one that I’ve always associated with home.

During the Christmas season, I would usually attempt to join my mom in attending all nine-day dawn masses (simbang gabi), which always start on December 16. But I could never wake up early enough to go to more than two of them. Capping off the Christmas and New Year celebrations was our annual Barrion Family Reunion—a whole-day gathering of my maternal great-grandparents’ clan every first or second Sunday of the new year. (The January 2023 reunion was our 67th!) Though my siblings and I always dreaded being asked to present a musical number in front of the familial crowd, we eagerly anticipated the games and raffles that were held.

Growing up in the Philippines, I was very aware of the destructive potential of nature. The country is generally hot and humid throughout the year. Cyclones pummel the archipelago during typhoon season, and classes are often canceled as a result. In my first year of college, I experienced a strong earthquake, which caused widespread destruction in provinces north of Manila. The following year, I was shocked when, one day, the daylight suddenly evaporated. The sky turned dark, as ashes began raining down on the city. Ninety kilometers away, Mount Pinatubo had just erupted in one of the most explosive volcanic events of the 20th century. 


After college in Manila, you continued your education in Kobe, Japan. What inspired you to move to Kobe, and what were your studies like there?

I had a deep curiosity about Japan, particularly because my late father was the son of a Japanese national and a Filipina. My father’s reticence about his Japanese roots, perhaps due to the challenges he had to overcome during and after WWII, made the idea of exploring Japan even more appealing to me. I thought that if I could, at the very least, learn Nihongo, which my father barely spoke, then I could help us reconnect with Japanese relatives. 

So after earning a bachelor’s degree in management economics at Ateneo de Manila University, I applied for a five-year undergraduate scholarship from Japan’s Ministry of Education. The program included a year of intensive Nihongo studies at the Osaka University of Foreign Studies, followed by a four-year undergraduate degree at Kobe University. 

Once I started my degree at Kobe U, I quickly realized that what I had learned in my year of intensive Nihongo studies wasn’t enough to prepare me for university. In class, I took notes like a mad woman, listing all the words I didn’t understand so I could review them afterwards. But it wasn’t tenable. To get through the year, I had to rely heavily on the kindness of classmates who lent me their notes and helped me understand things I had missed in lectures. 

Over time, as I learned more vocabulary and began taking better notes, I was able to enjoy classes more. Reading technical texts and engaging in class discussions in Nihongo were certainly challenging, but my professors were very encouraging and my classmates were extremely supportive.


How did you adapt to life in Japan?

I took advantage of various opportunities to gain insight into Japanese culture. Practicing Kendo taught me more than the way of the sword; it allowed me to develop a better understanding of relationships involving seniority and how this determines the form of language used.

Things were challenging at times, but the kindness of the Japanese people made things easier. My host family in Osaka frequently invited me for meals, sleepovers, and day trips, even after I had moved to Kobe. And there was never a shortage of volunteers who were eager to make foreign students’ lives easier. One of them even got in touch with my relatives in Osaka on my behalf soon after I arrived there, and I ended up attending a cousin’s wedding six months later. By the end of my program, I had also reconnected with relatives in Tokyo and Fukuoka. 


What led you to teaching as a career? 

Shortly after I entered Kobe University, the Office of International Students connected me with a Japanese woman who wanted to take private English lessons. She was my first student, and I realized I could tap into my experience as a language learner to teach her. Soon, I started getting referrals to teach at language schools in the Kobe/Osaka area, where I taught both adult and young learners. I only taught part-time but found the experience rewarding nonetheless. 

After I graduated, I briefly worked in the corporate world but soon decided to focus on teaching. I got certified in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) through the World Learning School of International Training in New York. Then, based on my experience as a mother, I became interested in how schools respond to students’ individual learning profiles, and I decided to pursue a master’s degree in education. 


In 2015, you earned an MEd in educational psychology (gifted and creative education) from the University of Georgia. How did the program influence your teaching?

Recognizing students’ unique backgrounds and identifying their strengths inform the ways I differentiate instruction. Considering students’ linguistic and cultural contexts and interests when choosing instructional materials can allow for more opportunities for learners to make connections and use their prior experience to build on their knowledge. The more they enjoy and identify with the lesson, the easier it is for them to make sense of it and take ownership of their learning.


You joined Graded in 2015. What are the best things about the school? 

Our students! They try their best to embody our core values. They show kindness, are curious, and persevere when things get challenging. They actively look for ways to serve the community. They shine in the classroom, on stage, and on the field. 

Our faculty and staff! I feel so fortunate to work with highly competent, dedicated, supportive, and collaborative colleagues. Every day I learn something new from them.

And finally, our school lunches! The food at Graded is always one of the highlights of my day!


You are Filipino, married to a Japanese-Brazilian, and your two sons, who attended Graded, are now at university abroad. What is your family culture like?   

It’s a little bit of everything, I suppose. If we look at the identifying elements of culture itself—such as food, celebration, and language—then we incorporate all those cultures into our lives. For instance, we might eat chicken adobo and pancit one day, and arroz e feijão the next. Many of the Filipino holidays are the same (Catholic) religious holidays observed here in Brazil. In terms of language, English is what we use at home. Nevertheless, I think that our family culture is more about the mindset, disposition, and values that my husband and I have taught our sons, which will serve them better than any other particular cultural element.


What are some of your hobbies and interests? 

I enjoy reading, traveling, watching films, solving word games/puzzles (particularly those on the New York Times app), making photo books, and practicing yoga and pilates.


We hear through the grapevine that you like peanut butter. Crunchy or creamy?

Either one works for me!