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Teachers face challenge in educating foreign children without Japanese language skills

Educators and researchers report on the instruction of foreign children during a sectional committee meeting held in conjunction with the National Conference on Educational Research, titled, "Education for international collaboration and cultural coexistence," in Kitakyushu on Feb. 3, 2019. (Mainichi/Haruna Okuyama)

KITAKYUSHU -- How should teachers handle children who come to live in Japan without being able to speak the language? This is one question that has arisen as the number of foreign children in Japan increases each year.

At the 68th National Conference on Educational Research held by the Japan Teachers' Union in the southwestern Japan city of Kitakyushu from Feb. 1-3, teachers reported on the challenges and difficulties associated with educating such children. These ranged from a lack of support systems to the challenge of teaching children who understand absolutely no Japanese.

"After teaching for over 30 years, it was my first time to encounter a child who spoke absolutely no Japanese," said a 57-year-old teacher from the western Japan prefecture of Hyogo, remembering one male student he met four years ago.

The student, who had just entered the public junior high school where the teacher taught, was shy. So even when the teacher spoke English to the student, who had learned some of that language in his home country, it was difficult to get a response. Even when the teacher placed "yes" and "no" stickers on the student's desk and urged him to point out a response, the student hesitated to answer. During four months of elementary school before entering the junior high school, the student had learned how to read the Japanese phonetic script of hiragana, but was unable to write it.

The student took classes with interpretation provided by support staff dispatched by the prefectural and municipal governments. After half a year the student was able to give the hiragana reading for the kanji characters used to write "Shinano River." However, he had trouble hearing certain words, incorrectly writing the word for school lunch as "kyoso" instead of "kyushoku" and the word for class as "jikeo" instead of the correct "jugyo."

Because the student was able to speak English, he managed to pass Grade Pre-2 of the "Eiken" test (Test in Practical English Proficiency) and was eventually able to go on to enter a prefectural high school. But in an earlier essay at junior high school he described his situation when he first came to Japan as "very strenuous."

Some local governments have set up international classes at elementary and junior high schools or assembled children described as having "zero" Japanese language ability to give them intensive instruction. The challenges of such efforts are how to decrease the burden on both teachers and students, while getting them ready to attend ordinary classes.

A 37-year-old teacher from a public elementary school in Ishikawa Prefecture teaches one such international class. She recalled a girl who attended.

"When she first joined, she couldn't say that much," the teacher said. But the teacher recalled that after a year, the words were pouring out of the girl's mouth, and she would come up and make conversation with the teacher. Still, when she attended regular school classes, she was unable to take part in conversation with others around her, and returned to being a "quiet girl."

The teacher wanted the girl to form more connections, so she brought her homeroom teacher to the international class. The homeroom teacher was surprised to see how loudly the girl was speaking. To encourage the girl to have contact with other teachers, she was also taken to the staff room and practiced reading aloud there. After a few times, the girl was joyfully jumping about and saying, "I want to do more (practice)!"

There remain challenges in educating such children, however. Some teachers, burdened by their already-heavy workloads, find it difficult to set aside the time. A 46-year-old teacher from a public elementary school in Oita Prefecture in southwestern Japan lamented, "The period when they first enter the school is important, but preparations to accept them aren't sufficient, and there are times when the student experiences a 'rock-bottom' first day of isolation." Learning from past experiences, teachers and parents at the school have formed a small circle and have started to exchange ideas on how to support such children. Through their new experiences, the teachers are slowly moving forward.

-- More funding planned to help educate rising numbers of foreign children

Revisions to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act that are set to go into effect in April have paved the way for more foreigners to work in Japan and it is expected that the number of foreign children will accordingly rise. In light of such circumstances, the government at the end of last year earmarked 500 million yen to help enrich the education of foreign children, among other such measures, as part of a "comprehensive response." This included the steady promotion of improvements to secure a basic teacher-student ratio of one teacher for every 18 students who require Japanese language education at public schools by the 2026 academic year.

However, according to a survey on children who require Japanese language instruction, carried out by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology in the 2016 academic year, only a fraction of schools had achieved this ratio. There are 7,020 schools across Japan with foreign children who need Japanese-language instruction, but just 359 of them, or 5.1 percent, have 20 or more students requiring such instruction. This means that even if the ratio of one teacher for every 18 students is achieved at those institutions, the majority of foreign students dispersed around other schools could be left out of the loop.

The government's comprehensive response includes formulation of an instruction system utilizing Japanese language support staff and staff who can help children in their mother tongues, but the lack of such instructors remains a serious issue. According to the 2016 survey, 10,400 of the 43,947 children who need Japanese language instruction remained without support due to an absence of such teachers, among other reasons.

The education ministry has formed a special review team headed by a state minister to set about bringing concrete form to the government's comprehensive response. A ministry staffer in charge commented, "We're developing a model program to foster and train teachers who will handle Japanese-language instruction, and we want to arrange a system of instruction based on that."

(Japanese original by Haruna Okuyama, City News Department)

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