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Parents supportive but girl is the winner

by Jun Hongo

How does one force an elementary school child to study or to master a foreign language at such a young age?

Ask Wakaba Yoshida, 40, and the answer is quite simple: Never try to discipline a child to begin with.

Yoshida’s daughter, Ayumi, 11, beat out 1,600 competitors to be crowned winner of a national English speech contest held in Tokyo earlier this month.

“It isn’t about making her work as hard as she can,” Yoshida said of her approach in developing her daughter’s champion skills. “It’s more about supporting her when necessary and not pushing too hard.”

Despite never having set foot outside of Japan, Ayumi, who resides in Yamaguchi Prefecture, delivered a pitch-perfect monologue in reciting a prepared story about Aladdin and his magic lamp during the All Japan Junior English Speech Contest on Feb. 6. Her Obama-esque delivery won the hearts of judges and some 200 spectators alike.

“We praised her English skills a lot since she began studying, and so did her friends and their mothers. That had a sort of synergy effect and made Ayumi enjoy the process. It became a good motivation,” Yoshida said.

Ayumi, who will become a sixth-grader in April, got a jump start from early on, becoming hooked on English educational TV programs before she could even ride a bike. Her affection with English had nothing to do with her parents, who don’t speak the language, but by her third birthday, she was eager to join a local English school.

The first hint of talent came when Ayumi read out loud a vocabulary her parents could barely read themselves. This was thanks to the local English school teachers, Yoshida said, who put weight on educating basic phonics and training communication skills. Ayumi said being able to read and pronounce an English vocabulary gave her an enormous sense of joy.

Ayumi’s interest kept growing to the point that, by age 10, she passed the presecond-level of Japan’s most widely used English-language testing program, Eiken (Test in Practical English Proficiency). That test is intended for high school graduates, according to the guideline by Society for Testing English Proficiency Inc., a nonprofit foundation in Tokyo that administers the program.

“It’s always fun when I learn a word, and that word appears on a text and I can solve a question,” Ayumi said.

“Ayumi attends English lessons twice a week, for a total of three hours. The monthly fee is about ¥13,000,” her mother said, explaining that other than her daughter’s own desire there was nothing up her sleeves that magically turned Ayumi into an English speaker.

“In fact, we would have allowed her to quit studying if she ever wanted to. But in retrospect I think our attitude was important. Never forcing her to study English is probably why she was able to continue enjoying it,” Yoshida said.

Meanwhile, both mother and the daughter have positive comments regarding the April launch of compulsory English lessons for fifth- and sixth-graders.

“It is great that they will be focusing on communication skills. It used to be about learning the alphabet and grammar when I was in school, but the shift will likely provide an occasion for our children to enjoy studying,” Yoshida said. Surveys have shown that most mothers share her view about the new curriculum in schools.

Yoshida’s only concern is whether English lessons in junior high schools can adapt to the change.

“If lessons in junior high schools continue to be less about fun and more about preparing for high school entrance exams, then holding compulsory lessons for fifth- and sixth-graders will be meaningless,” she said.

Ayumi, who envisions herself as a TV announcer or an international businesswoman when she grows up, said she looks forward to the change in school.

But the hard worker said that aside from the compulsory lessons, she sees the need to brush up on her vocabulary, explaining that it is “always disappointing when I forget the meaning of a word.”

In a recent case, for example, she failed to grasp the meaning of a sentence because she wasn’t aware the word fine can have several definitions, including having a good quality or meaning a penalty.

“They switch meanings depending on the context. That is what is tricky about English. But I want to learn more,” she said.