FEATURE: Schools seek ways to bridge communication gap

TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN) - With the number of non-Japanese schoolchildren increasing all over Japan, the need to improve Japanese-language education in schools has grown. Schools are exploring ways of teaching foreign students the Japanese language, an essential skill for learning activities in this country. This article is the first instalment in a series on the topic.

In early January at Minami no Hoshi Elementary School in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, a Japanese language lesson was being given to a sixth-grade class. In addition to the homeroom teacher, another teacher was present: Masaru Inuzuka, who is in charge of the education of non-Japanese children.

“What left an impression?” 

“How should it be presented?” 

Inuzuka paraphrased the words of the homeroom teacher as he stood near two children, one from Brazil and the other from Vietnam. Inuzuka was assisting the two students, because although they understand everyday conversation, they are not yet very familiar with some expressions used in teaching and learning activities, such as “observation” and “conclusion.” 

The school has a total of 425 students. There are 103 students from seven foreign countries, and 13 Japanese children with connections to another country, such as having a foreign parent. Of these 116 children, 61 require Japanese-language instruction.

At Minami no Hoshi, in addition to the support offered in their classrooms, children who require assistance in reading comprehension and composing Japanese text also receive instruction in a separate classroom. 

There are two teachers in charge, including Inuzuka. They provide support without acting as the homeroom teacher. But while the Japanese being used is simple, it is beyond the comprehension of some of the students. As a result, the school has a permanent support staff member who can speak Portuguese. It also has temporary personnel who can speak Portuguese, Chinese, Spanish and Indonesian. They assist with the children’s learning one or two times a week by translating Japanese into their mother tongues. 

As Inuzuka explains, “Without such support, the students would end up just sitting at their desks without understanding any of the lessons.”

With its flourishing automobile-related industry, Hamamatsu experienced a rapid increase in the number of foreigners coming from different countries in South America during the 1990s. Although this decreased after the 2008 Lehman shock, the city saw a subsequent increase in foreigners from different parts of Asia. Last May, there were a record 1,727 schoolchildren with foreign nationalities, representing 26 countries and regions. More than 80 per cent of the city’s municipal elementary and junior high schools have such students enrolled.

The city government checks the children’s Japanese proficiency when they enter or transfer to a new school, and provides Japanese-language instruction appropriate to their levels. Children who speak absolutely no Japanese are taught in separate classrooms in the schools where they are enrolled, starting from the basics, which are also based on the school rules: greetings, counting, how to express that they are feeling ill, and so on. If the children can speak a certain level of Japanese, they take part in standard classes while receiving support, or are taught in separate classrooms. In order to promote this kind of learning, the Hamamatsu Board of Education has gained the cooperation of three organizations and approximately 50 bilingual individuals this year.

There are also municipalities that bring such students together in one place to give them intensive Japanese-language lessons right from the outset. This year, the city of Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture, opened an initial support school for junior high school students in need of Japanese-language instruction.

The teachers speak in Japanese, while difficult words are translated by bilingual staff who can speak Portuguese, Tagalog and other languages. The students go to the initial support school four days a week and attend the school where they are enrolled one day a week. After continuing this pattern for eight weeks and learning to read and compose reasonably long texts, they return to the school where they are enrolled and continue to study there. Until last year, bilingual assistants were stationed at the schools at which the students were enrolled for rudimentary teaching. However, with the increase in the number of such students, the city has adopted a more efficient arrangement.

As Gunei Sato, a specially appointed professor of intercultural education at Meiji University, points out: “There is no single way to respond to these schoolchildren, who come from increasingly diverse backgrounds and whose numbers are increasing. The important thing is to secure people who are familiar with the Japanese education system, such as support staff who can speak these children’s mother tongues, and to create an arrangement that suits the realities of each local community, depending on the size of the municipality or the number of children requiring instruction.”