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Culture and Education

Should we simply focus on educating children to have command of the Japanese language?
Addressing issues on Japanese language education and non-Japanese children

Makiko Ikegami
Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

Japanese schools are seeing an influx of children who for various reasons lack adequate Japanese language skills. In the 1980s, Japanese schools began accepting children of Japanese citizens left behind in China following World War II as well as children of expatriates returning to Japan from overseas assignments. An increase of Central and South American nationals of Japanese descent also came to Japan following the 1990 revision to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act. Children from different language and cultural backgrounds have previously attended Japanese schools, but as the number of children increases, issues concerning Japanese language education are receiving greater attention. According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, nearly 30,000 school children/students require supplementary Japanese language education*1.

The challenges these children face vary significantly. Those who have just begun living in a Japanese-speaking environment and have difficulty carrying out basic daily communication in Japanese require assistance that allows them to be understood in everyday situations. However, even those who have spent some time in Japan and no longer experience difficulty with everyday conversations can still find it difficult to understand subjects taught in school or reading and writing Japanese. These problems exist among children who came to Japan while they were very young or grew up in multilingual households. Another difficult challenge is how to address these children’s’ native languages and develop their proficiency.

Under such circumstances, a change in law allows Japanese schools to implement Japanese language education as a "special curriculum" from 2014 onward*2. This is a meaningful reform for children's learning and linguistic rights. Japanese language lessons are often treated as extracurricular activities and take children out from class. However, schools now regard lessons catered towards specific levels of Japanese language ability as official curriculum, as long as they approve the lesson plans. Of course, it is up to each school to decide how to organize systems including instruction methods, assessment methods, and lessons.

Japanese language instructors, particularly "certified teachers" should play central roles in developing lesson plans, delivering lessons, and assessing students. Although teachers have assistants to help teach Japanese and other subjects, as well as support children in their native languages, teachers with no experience in Japanese language education have several concerns. "How can someone who doesn't understand Japanese participate in lessons?" "What instructions can work when neither Japanese nor their native languages can be used intelligibly?" "How can fifth graders who don't even know third grade kanji catch up with their classmates?" "Is it too late for someone who came to Japan in their second-year of junior high school to prepare for Japanese high school entrance examinations?" As a lecturer, I have participated in some seminars on Japanese language education for teachers. However, these seminars do not provide teachers with immediate solutions for their concerns and anxieties.

Lecturers invited to these seminars not only discuss second language acquisition theories and bilingualism but also more practical aspects such as "how to teach Japanese" and "teaching methods that help students with their study of other subjects." I have adopted a workshop-based approach to have discussions with teachers to explore the underlying reasons behind their concerns and have gradually begun asking this one single question:

Will all problems disappear after students learn Japanese and have full command of the language?

There is an elementary school that places children with insufficient Japanese skills in a special math class. Subjects like math are well-structured learning areas where learners are required to catch up. It is also easier for those with insufficient Japanese language skills to succeed in areas that do not demand language proficiency. Subsequently this makes it relatively easy for children to succeed in topics such as “Numbers and Calculations.” For this reason, we are working on an initiative to help learners improve their math and Japanese language skills simultaneously while studying mathematics. When I first joined this initiative, teachers often voiced concerns such "There is a child who cannot even keep himself seated in the arithmetic class," "They keep on chatting with each other in their native languages" and "Once or twice a week is not enough to support them." Regarding the student that cannot stay seated, I responded "Is it really necessary to keep him seated?" Would it not be fair to allow the child to run about and even lie down in class since in his regular course his teachers forced him to sit down quietly all day despite not understanding the contents of the course? It would not hurt to let the child let off steam before returning to his seat.

We only meet once a month to discuss these issues. However, teachers are gradually sharing the circumstances of these children and exploring effective solutions together. Many teachers say in the second year, “It is more important to find out what prevents children from learning than what they do not understand.” In the fourth year, as teachers grow more confident after seeing the children change say, "We tend to devote most of our attention to how we teach, but we should put ourselves in the children's shoes." One teacher said, "At the beginning, I felt uneasy when my usual methods didn't work. However now I understand that I should not simply apply one teaching method unilaterally regardless of whether or not the students are Japanese." She told me that in class she talks more before diving into math exercises but admits, “It is still important to learn multiplication tables.”

Japanese language study is important for both children and teachers. However, it is important not to jump to the conclusion that "improved Japanese language skills will solve all problems." Aspects such as how to introduce kana (Japanese syllabary) letters and how to practice necessary vocabulary may be essential parts of Japanese language education, but they should never be the goals or targets in and of themselves. Children need opportunities to learn Japanese while communicating with teachers and classmates and taking part in regular learning activities. To this end, I believe teachers must believe they can help children based on their experiences as teachers, even if they have no experience at all in Japanese language education. However, the main problem regarding learning Japanese remains and will remain as long as teachers focus solely on Japanese language while ignoring other aspects.

It has taken math teachers a long time to expand beyond the sole issue of Japanese language abilities. An approach focused on efficiency alone is not effective for finding solutions to issues regarding Japanese language education. It may be effective to incorporate this perspective into earlier stages such as during the development and training of prospective teachers. The goal of providing Japanese language education to students is not to educate children so they achieve command of the Japanese language, but to develop attitudes similar to the previously mentioned math teacher "regardless of whether or not the students are Japanese." This demonstrates how Japanese language education for non-Japanese children can broaden the horizons of all children.

*1 Results of the Survey on Acceptance of Students Who Require Japanese Language Education (2014)
*2 Enforcement of Ministerial Ordinances etc. Issued to Partially Revise the Enforcement Regulations of the School Education Law (Notice)

Makiko Ikegami
Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

[Profile]
Professor Makiko Ikegami completed a graduate course in Cultural Japanese Linguistics at Ochanomizu University.
In 2005, she was appointed Associate Professor at Waseda University’s Graduate School of Japanese Applied Linguistics and appointed her current position in 2010. She is also a part-time instructor at the Japanese Returning from China Self-support Training Center in the Foundation to Aid War-Displaced Japanese Children in China.

[Works related to Japanese language education for children students]
"Practical Lessons That Create Learning for Pupils and Students from Other Countries: An Initiative in Hamamatsu to Develop 'Language and Subject Skills'" (Co-author, 2015, Kurosio Publishers), "Children's Japanese Language Treasure Island" (Co-author, 2009, ASK Publishing Co., LTD.), "Creating Language Education for 'Children Crossing Borders'—Resonance of ESL and JSL Education" (Co-author, 2009, Coco Publishing), and "JSL 'Arithmetic' Lesson Design" and "JSL 'Japanese' Lesson Design" (Co-author, 2005, 3A Corporation)