Language help lets foreign students fit in


You’d think my sons were the first gaijin kids ever to attend a Japanese elementary school, judging from the surprised responses we get from people. But there are lots of foreign children in Japanese schools, and their numbers are growing. Unfortunately, most schools aren’t equipped to teach newcomers the Japanese they need in order to learn and become part of the school community.

There are about 78,000 gaikokujin jido (foreign pupils) enrolled in Japanese public schools. Nearly 20,000 of them don’t know enough Japanese to function in the classroom, according to the Education Ministry. The latest survey, conducted last September, counted 12,468 elementary school students, 5,694 junior high school students and 1,024 high school students who need instruction in Japanese as a second language. The number of children needing such help has grown steadily since the first survey in 1991.

When my older son started as a sannensei (third-grader), he was fresh off the plane and didn’t know one word of Japanese. Two years later, he’s virtually fluent. He no longer needs special assistance at school, and he even reads and writes better than some of his native Japanese classmates.

Sure, kids learn quickly, but his acquisition of Japanese was faster than average. Why? I believe it was largely because our school has a nihongo gakkyu, a special department with teachers trained to teach children Japanese as a second language. Our nihongo gakkyu teachers do a lot more than teach language; they also help the foreign students adapt to school life and serve as their advocates within the school.

For his first year, my son went to the Japanese department every day for an hour. Within a few months, he could read and write hiragana and katakana, and handle simple conversation. As his ability to participate in the classroom improved, he cut back to twice a week at the nihongo gakkyu. By the end of his second year, he no longer needed special help.

Unfortunately, most foreign pupils aren’t so lucky. Very few schools have a Japanese department or anyone trained to teach Japanese to foreign children. About 20 percent of the foreign students who need Japanese instruction are not getting any help at all. And an increasing number have been enrolled in Japanese schools for two or more years yet are still identified as not knowing enough Japanese to function in the classroom.

It’s difficult to provide Japanese-as-a-second-language services because the children needing help are scattered throughout the country and in so many different schools. There are foreign pupils in every prefecture, including remoter places such as Tottori, Saga and Ehime prefectures.

Aichi Prefecture has the largest number of foreign students requiring Japanese-language instruction. Most are children of factory workers from Latin America who are allowed to work in Japan because they are of Japanese descent. Kanagawa Prefecture, Tokyo and Shizuoka Prefecture also have large numbers of foreign children who need Japanese instruction.

Even within school districts with many foreigners, the children needing Japanese instruction are scattered. Of the 5,296 schools that reported having students requiring Japanese instruction, about 80 percent said they had fewer than six. Roughly half said they had only one.

A complicating factor is that children learning Japanese have differing needs depending on their mother tongue. Among the children needing Japanese assistance, there are speakers of 59 different languages. About 80 percent speak Portuguese, Chinese or Spanish as their mother tongue.

School systems respond to these challenges in different ways. A very few have set up Japanese departments, usually at schools with at least 10 students requiring assistance. Sometimes a tutor is sent for a limited number of hours. Sometimes, the board of education provides no help, so a teacher with free time, or the principal, will provide some lessons. But it’s rare for these instructors to have any training in teaching children Japanese as a second language.

Not surprisingly, some foreign students give up when the challenges of learning the language prove too great. For those who live outside of big cities, or whose parents can’t afford international-school tuition, there may be no alternative to Japanese school. Japanese law doesn’t require foreign children to attend school, so they can legally drop out and stay home. Thus, an increasing number of foreign children aren’t being educated at all while they live in Japan.

This is not only a disaster for the children but can cause problems for the communities in which they live. Some foreign youths, idle because they don’t attend school yet are too young too work, have committed vandalism and other crimes. This has led to tensions between immigrant communities and their Japanese neighbors.

What could be done to improve the situation? We need more teachers trained to teach Japanese to foreign children. Although a few universities offer such courses as an elective, the credits usually don’t count toward teacher qualification. And there are few opportunities or incentives for working teachers to get trained.

More boards of educations should set up Japanese departments, staffed with trained teachers. They should also liberalize school-transfer rules so children needing Japanese assistance can enroll in a school with a Japanese department, even if it’s not their neighborhood school.

We need more help for older children, such as Japanese departments in junior high and high schools, and courses in their mother tongue so they don’t fall behind in their studies while learning Japanese.

Finally, the law that requires children to be educated should be extended to foreigners, with home schooling, private schools and international schools specified as acceptable ways to educate any child, whether foreign or Japanese. At the same time, public schools should be mandated to provide appropriate education for all children, including those who need Japanese assistance.

Educating foreign children shouldn’t be dismissed as a problem for parents or schools. We should all want these children to learn Japanese so they can benefit from their time in Japan, share their culture and language, and participate as members of the new, multicultural Japan.