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New course track takes aim at language barrier

by Kenzo Moriguchi

KYOTO — The term “internationalization” has come into everyday use in the last decade, but Japanese people still face language barriers when it comes to implementing the concept behind the word.

A new attempt at Seibo Gakuin Elementary School in Kyoto’s Fushimi Ward, however, may be the solution for Japanese who are often obsessed with their ability — or inability — to communicate in English.

The private elementary school will start an international course track for 25 new students in April, in which all subjects, except Japanese, are taught solely in English.

The purpose is not to teach English to children from an early age but to enable students to learn and study in English, according to principal Akio Kusui.

“If they can master English, they can directly communicate with English speakers, even in their private lives. This would open their world,” said Kusui, who has been planning the international course track since he assumed his post in 1999.

As part of a new curriculum drawn up by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, English classes were introduced at a number of public elementary schools in April. Adopting the new system is left to the discretion of each school.

But the new curriculum is only for students in the third grade or older and provides for a maximum of 110 hours per year.

There have been some attempts by schools to teach some subjects in English, but these have been limited to between 50 percent and 70 percent of total classes.

“I expect international-course pupils to be showered with 2,000 hours of English in the first year so they become able to communicate in English,” Kusui said. “Of course, the students would first be confused for a while, but we arrange the learning program in accordance with an individual’s progress.”

Lessons are to be led by a native English-speaking teacher and an assistant Japanese teacher who is fluent in English.

Some parents, however, are concerned about their children’s Japanese abilities as they have to face entrance examinations for junior high school.

Kusui is confident the students will be sufficiently fluent in Japanese because the 25 students in the international track will only be separated from the rest of the students during classes, and they will spend time with the other students during morning meetings, recesses between classes and at lunchtime breaks.

Kusui firmly believes these students’ advanced English skills will give them more opportunities in the future and when they enter junior high school.

This year, the school received more than 70 applications for 25 available slots. About one-third of the successful applicants are children who have returned to Japan from abroad, another third are growing up in a bilingual environment at home, meaning that most of them have an English-speaking parent, and the rest are children of parents who are interested in the new educational experiment, Kusui said.

He emphasized that the new system does not intend to only make students bilingual, but also aims to give an understanding of Japan’s culture through such lessons as the Japanese tea ceremony or flower arranging.

“Even if you can speak English, it is shameful if you can not convey your own culture and express your identity. I have seen many Japanese youngsters who cannot do that,” he said.

Over the long term, Kusui expects graduates of the course track to contribute to world peace. “Peace is maintained only if people understand foreign cultures through correct communication,” he said.