Modern teaching tools capitalize on ‘Japan cool’

by Paul Torpey

Enter a British school and Japanese is likely to have been left outside the classroom. According to statistics from the United Kingdom’s National Centre for Languages (CILT), last year 978 students took Japanese at GCSE level, the public exams taken at 16 after which students can leave school or continue studying. By contrast, there were 318,963 entrants for the French GCSE in 2004.

The distance between the U.K. and Japan is irrelevant to the 440 students currently studying Japanese at Hendon Secondary School in north London, where the language has been taught since 1996. Students come from at least 16 distinct ethnic backgrounds and around 60 percent speak a non-English language at home. In such fertile cosmopolitan soil, Japanese has flourished.

Hendon’s Year 7 pupils (aged 11 and 12) first encounter Japanese during a three-month introductory program. Modules cover basics to generate an awareness about the relationships between language, culture and daily life. These students then decide which languages to study for the next two years. At the end of Year 9 (ages 13-14), pupils decide which languages to study for another two years in preparation for the GCSE. This year, out of 110 Year 9 pupils studying Japanese since Year 7, 60 opted to continue toward GCSE.

There are several factors behind the popularity of Japanese at Hendon. One is the sheer excitement at studying a language so different in sound and appearance to English. As the subject head, Helen Langsam, explains: “Japanese seems to appeal to students who maybe lose their concentration and focus in school. These sorts of children tend to persevere with Japanese and continue to learn and do well in it and I think this is because it’s seen as a cool language to learn.”

The popularity of manga series like “Shonen Jump” and “Tokyo Myu Myu” and animated films like “Spirited Away” illustrate that, and by playing on the current cachet of Japanese culture, teachers create an invaluable association between learning and fun. As Year 8 student and manga fanatic Nicole Mitchell says: “I read manga because the pictures are cool and really interesting. I also read them because they are Japanese, the stories are good and they really help me with my Japanese language skills.”

Another part of the appeal is the emphasis placed on interactivity in the classroom using oral work and electronic teaching aids.

Year 7 pupils learn hiragana using an electronic whiteboard — characters whiz across the surface and students call out when they recognize them. The whiteboard is also used to host “sentence auctions,” a grammar and vocabulary exercise for all age groups. Students are split into teams and told they have 1,000 yen to “buy” sentences that appear on the screen. The winning team is the one that buys the most grammatically correct sentences for the least cash.

By Year 9 the focus shifts to more complex grammar and kanji. Perhaps surprisingly, according to student Pavithra Narendran, the progress isn’t as difficult as in other languages. “I think the grammar is much easier than French because it’s simple and easy to understand. I think once you’ve grasped katakana and hiragana then you’re OK,” she said.

Pavithra is obviously unfazed by the prospect of having to master 200 kanji by the time she sits her GCSE exam.

Hendon’s unorthodox methods are clearly bearing fruit, with 19 out of last year’s group of 25 GCSE students obtaining the top grade of A*. Fifteen students last year went on to take the higher pre-university A-Level exam after two more years of study.

CILT’s statistics show only 254 Japanese A-Level entries nationwide in 2004. But they also show that Japanese is slowly on the rise, while the number of western European language exam entrants is on the decline. Provisional CILT figures predict 1,120 students will sit the Japanese GCSE this year, an increase of 142 from 2004.

But the success of institutions like Hendon will not necessarily increase the likelihood of Japanese being taught more widely in schools. One drawback is limited university opportunities for U.K. students beyond A-Level Japanese. In recent years, Japanese departments at the universities of Stirling (in Scotland) and Ulster (in Northern Ireland) have closed; the well-respected Department of East Asian Studies at Durham University is scheduled to close in September 2007.

Time will tell if the burgeoning interest in Japanese pop culture among U.K. students, and the trickle-on effect this is having on learning Japanese at high-school level, will be enough to overcome such setbacks.