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Japan returnee student struggles at school after local gov't cuts language support

School work by a student whose Japanese language support classes were cut is shown with mistakes in the kanji characters, in Yamaguchi Prefecture on March 20, 2019. (Mainichi/Tomoyuki Hori)

YAMAGUCHI -- A returnee student living in Yamaguchi Prefecture whose language support was cut, leading her to stop attending school, has drawn attention to the plight of unsupported students left to struggle regardless of their difficulties with Japanese.

In September 2018, the now-second grade junior high school student stopped attending classes due to stress caused by not understanding Japanese. Since the municipal government cut her language classes, she'd not mentioned her troubles to anyone.

Born in Yamaguchi Prefecture, her mother is Japanese and her father is South Korean. Her father's occupation and studies overseas have taken the family to the United States, Europe and South America. They returned to Japan in April 2015 after six years in Brazil, and she enrolled in the fourth grade of elementary school. She had no problem with day-to-day communication in Japanese, but couldn't read or write.

According to her city's board of education, when she was in the fifth grade there were seven foreign students in her local area requiring Japanese language lessons. A teacher was dispatched twice a week to provide individual classes, but this ended in her sixth grade, after a number of the students left Japan.

In July 2018, three months into the first grade of junior high school, her teachers and family realized something was amiss. During end-of-term tests, she was seen with her head down, sleeping at her desk. Concerned, her homeroom teacher called her mother. With the exception of English, her test scores were in the single digits. "I guess she didn't understand the lessons, so she was exhausted," says her mother.

During summer vacation, she attended a local university's study support class aimed at foreign-born children. A teacher at the class asked her why all her summer homework was blank. "I don't understand it, so I can't do it," she replied. The teacher surmised that she had difficulties with kanji characters taught in and after the third grade of elementary school.

Staff at the support class helped her do the homework by explaining it in simple language. They also got her to put together a newspaper in Japanese introducing Brazil. After the support classes' four days ended, she told her mother, "I wish teachers at my school taught me like that (study support class)."

When the second school term began in September 2018 she stopped attending, struggling to leave the house at all. After some time her mother asked why. Slowly, her reasons came out. She said losing the language classes had made her feel she couldn't say she didn't understand, and that when teachers asked her to do things, she didn't know what they were saying.

Because there was no problem in ordinary conversation, her parents and teachers had assumed she understood Japanese. But in lessons, students must remember specialized vocabulary used in contexts like analytical or logical writing. Acquiring those words isn't easy. The university support class teacher commented, "It'd be too burdensome for teachers if they were required to teach specific vocabulary on top of conversational expressions. It's essential to create an environment where a specialist support teacher can help."

At the start of this year, she moved to another school in the prefecture with language teaching facilities. But even now there are days when she doesn't feel she can attend, instead spending the time home alone drawing pictures.

Her mother says, "If she could get support from a teacher who can teach Japanese language, maybe she could go to school." Her voice becomes subdued, "I failed to notice her distress."

(Japanese original by Tomoyuki Hori, City News Department)

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