The first Japan-America Student Association virtual language exchange

The UMSL Japan-America Student Association has partnered with three Japanese universities to create virtual events where students can practice their language skills safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. The first two events each attracted about 20 UMSL students, who chatted with Japanese students and reviewed classwork in Zoom breakout rooms. (Photo courtesy of UMSL Japan-America Student Association)

Molly Motes was living her dream.

She was studying abroad at Toyo University in Tokyo, surrounded by a canopy of neon lights and the language she had been learning for several years at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

Despite the occasional language barrier, Motes was making fast friends with members of the English Community Zone, a language club and a dance club – even if their conversations were sometimes only a few words at a time.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, cutting short her planned yearlong stay.

Though Motes had to return to the U.S., she kept in touch with her Japanese friends during the ensuing months. Nearly a year later, Motes, a senior Japanese major and UMSL Japan-America Student Association president, has drawn upon those friendships to create a series of online “language exchange tables” with several partner universities in Japan.

These digital events have provided students with opportunities to sharpen their Japanese, to connect with others during a difficult time and to strengthen UMSL’s international ties.

JASA previously ran weekly in-person Japanese-English Language Exchange Tables on campus where students practiced their language skills and received help from Japanese tutors. However, JASA members noticed a lack of foot traffic and Japanese exchange students on campus during the 2020 spring semester due to the pandemic. Motes began looking for safe workaround as the new school year started.

“I really was disappointed that we weren’t being able to speak to any Japanese people at these tables,” she said. “I had been brought back from studying abroad at Toyo University early, and I just kept thinking about how it’d be cool if my friends from Toyo could just come to our table and practice Japanese with us. I thought, ‘Well, why don’t I make that happen?’”

Motes reached out to friends in the English Community Zone at Toyo, and they brainstormed via LINE, a Japanese messaging app. Eventually, they settled on a Zoom event. JASA officers Erikah Taylor-Allen, Morgan White, Jordan Sedbrerry, Eric Eggers and Amy Seidel helped Motes plan the first online language exchange in November during fall break.

It was a runaway success.

“The turnout was crazy,” Motes said. “We were all just so excited to talk to each other and meet new friends because it’s so hard to do right now. Every single person I talked to after the event was like, ‘We gotta do this again. I want to meet more people.’”

About 20 UMSL students participated, chatting with Japanese students and reviewing classwork in Zoom breakout rooms. The turnout and the enthusiasm of the participants were encouraging – particularly for JASA’s first attempt at such an event.

“That is a really great number,” said Amy Michael, assistant teaching professor of Japanese. “At the in-person language tables, 10 people would be a great turnout. So, to get 20 people is amazing. Also, I really liked the fact that they found the bright side of the pandemic. The fact that they’ve taken this terrible situation and found an awesome opportunity is really impressive.”

Since then, Motes has been working to include more Japanese universities. A second event on Jan. 21 brought together about 20 UMSL students and Rikkyo University students, and one planned for February will include an English club from Chuo University.

Students who’ve studied abroad in Japan were crucial to expanding the exchanges.

“Thankfully, with some of our partner universities, we had students who had studied abroad there – a year ago, two years ago – and they were able to get me in contact with people from those universities,” Motes said. “The response from both sides has just been nothing but excitement.”

Aside from being able to practice Japanese, students have also been exposed to the idea of eventually studying abroad.

“Even though we can’t currently do study abroad, I think it’s really helping students look forward to when study abroad is possible again,” Michael said. “I think it will become easier for them to make that leap, interacting with students who’ve done it but also making friends in Tokyo. I think that makes it easier to imagine going to Japan.”

Michael finds that UMSL students generally bring a lot of enthusiasm and interest in Japanese culture to her classes. Japanese is not a commonly taught language – only about 130 American universities offer an undergraduate degree – so those who seek out the program tend to be especially passionate.

Many students start studying the language with the goal of watching their favorite anime shows or reading their favorite manga comics untranslated. Others want to work in Japan someday. Michael said having those objectives in the distance helps keep students motivated while learning a difficult language for non-native speakers.

“I have a lot of benefits as an instructor,” she said. “First, no one ever comes to Japanese thinking it’s going to be easy, so I never have to fight with them about that aspect of it. Everyone knows that Japanese is a challenging language for an English speaker. But coming to the study of the language with an innate interest in it, it just makes my job so much easier.”

Like many of her classmates, Motes’ interest in the language stemmed from pop culture. As a teen, she downloaded some music not realizing it was Japanese pop but instantly loved it. Her fascination with the language began there and steadily grew as she approached college.

“I started seeing that Japanese has three different writing systems and their sentence structure is reversed,” she said. “I started reading all these things online, and I’m like, ‘Ooh, it’s challenging, and I like how the music sounds,’ so I started researching more about Japan. I even tried self-teaching myself Japanese in high school.”

Motes wanted to keep pursuing that interest and stay in Missouri, which made UMSL her top choice for college.

Since matriculating, she and other members of JASA have worked to introduce everyone on campus to Japanese culture through events such as Nov. 12’s virtual origami lesson for Bunka no Hi, Japan’s Culture Day, and JASA’s annual Japan Night.

This year, the latter event will be held digitally on May 14 from 6-8 p.m. Things will look a bit different, but Michael and Motes are committed to providing a great experience.

“We have lots of our usual activities planned,” Motes said, explaining that most translate well to the format. “We tend to do Japanese-themed trivia about Japanese culture, sometimes the Japanese language. We are also going to be playing lots of games because that’s another big draw. We’re definitely going to try to have a guest speaker like we did for past semesters.”

For more information about upcoming language exchanges or other events visit:

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe