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Foreign kids in Japan relying on volunteers for language support

Three children from the Philippines participate in a Japanese language class carried out by volunteers, in Koshigaya, Saitama Prefecture. (Mainichi/Haruna Okuyama)

Local Japanese language classes are playing an important role for many foreign children in Japan, and it is hoped that that they can help make up for a lack of dedicated language instruction at regular schools. Yet these classes are operated by volunteers, so students' study time is limited, and there remain many outstanding issues, such as the lack of a framework to systematically teach Japanese.

In early April this year, three siblings who had come to Japan from the Philippines -- a 13-year-old boy in his second year of junior high school, and an 11-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy in their sixth and third years of elementary school, respectively -- could be found at a class in the city of Koshigaya in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo. They started attending local public elementary and junior high schools in April.

The siblings were born to a Japanese father and a Filipino mother. They had been attending a school on the island of Cebu in the Philippines, but their parents wanted them to live in Japan, and they arrived in the country in January this year. As they could not speak Japanese, their father advised them to attend Japanese language classes until the start of the new school year so they could learn some simple phrases.

Classes held by volunteers in the city run for about two hours, and are held roughly once a week. The siblings attend four classes. Their teachers range widely, from a university student to a former educator and an elderly instructor, and there are no common textbooks between the different classes. During one class in April, a female volunteer was teaching them the names of pieces of stationery. Pointing to the items, they would say words like "pencil" and "eraser," with English mixed into the instruction.

"When you don't understanding something at school, go into 'giraffe mode,'" the instructor advised the children, explain that they should lift up their heads like giraffes and look around to see what their classmates were doing.

During a separate lesson at a different language school, the three children learned about school practices and instructions like "stand up," "bow" and "sit down," and they practiced greetings in line with the commands.

As no information is shared between the different classes, there is no collaboration over what the children are taught. Because of this, even after two weeks of learning, the siblings still didn't know the names of school subjects like "kokugo" (Japanese).

Multicultural Center Tokyo, a nonprofit organization based in Tokyo's Arakawa Ward, offers Japanese-language instruction for students who have arrived from overseas. Representative director Noriko Hazeki points out, "Most Japanese language classes rely on volunteers, and the staff change depending on the day, so ongoing instruction is not possible." She added, "We need multilingual teaching materials that have the vocabulary students need to learn for each grade. The government should take the lead in creating and spreading such materials."

In mid-May, approximately a month after the children had entered school, they were communicating in basic English with their teachers and classmates. "I was jumping rope outside during the break," one of them said with a smile. Their access to a Japanese-language instructor at the school is limited to one hour a week, and they say all they do during the lesson is copy words from the blackboard. "This only," one of them explained with gestures, pretending to write with a pencil. The kanji characters for "calculation" were written in a notebook, but none of the siblings could read them.

Mitsuru Ogawa, the head of "Tabunka Kodomo Gakushujuku," another school that the children attend, commented, "I think it would be good if there were a setup in which the government took the lead and we helped them."

(Japanese original by Haruna Okuyama, City News Department)

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