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Various cities in Aichi Prefecture have started offering language classes to children of foreign descent in their first language.

It is rare to find that type of language class in Japan, but first-language education is an integral part of the Aichi Multicultural Society Promotion Plan.

Aichi has a high ratio of foreign residents, second only to Tokyo. To make this progressive approach a success, the prefecture requires more government financing and must spread the word among foreign communities.

“When do you use this symbol?” Brazilian-born Celeste Nakamura asked her students in Portuguese, who replied hesitatingly.

The 57-year-old teacher of Portuguese at the Toyota Industry Culture Center works every Friday or Saturday. The first half of the class is spent teaching with a white board, with the remainder spent on one-on-one tutoring.

Daniel Togo, a third-year junior high student, was assigned to do some reading comprehension.

“These are questions for elementary students in Brazil, but it’s difficult to understand the texts,” Togo said wryly.

“But my vocabulary has grown and I can express my feelings in Portuguese now,” he added with a smile.

Togo’s father is half-Brazilian, half-Japanese, while his mother is a Brazilian of Japanese descent, so he speaks to both of them in Portuguese.

Foreign children pick up the Japanese language by attending classes in school and communicating with other students, which helps them improve quickly. But use of their mother tongue is limited to home, so their vocabulary doesn’t develop as much. Some can speak in their mother tongue but are unable to read or write, and others have difficulty communicating with their parents.

The mother tongue classes held in Toyota were started in April 2014 by Toyota International Association after requests emerged to organize such classes.

In the Portuguese class, there are 31 elementary and junior high school students, with 13 attending a class conducted in Chinese.

Volunteer groups used to organize these classes, but now that the city has taken over, they have reduced the tuition fee from ¥5,000 for four classes a month to ¥500 per class.

It is common for the government to arrange extra Japanese lessons in schools to help foreign children, but researchers have pointed out that having a firm grasp of one’s mother tongue first will help students learn Japanese more easily later on. But if they have not built the foundation for their mother tongue properly, it will be difficult for them to improve in both.

Aichi Prefecture began addressing these concerns in 2012. It placed private organizations in charge of teaching children their mother tongues, including Portuguese and Chinese, and provided support to the entities. It also created a booklet titled “Kotoba” to highlight the importance of knowing one’s mother tongue.

These initiatives were made possible by the Emergency Employment Creation Special Subsidy System. However, despite pushing for support for mother tongue classes, the prefecture hasn’t been able to secure more financing since its funds ran out in 2013.

“First we need to raise awareness of the importance of one’s first language,” said an employee in the prefecture’s Multicultural Society Section.

For now, they intend to do so via the booklet, which will hopefully lead to an increase in guardians and volunteer groups to help run these classes.

While many governing bodies place a high priority on teaching foreign children Japanese, foreign residents have praised those who appreciate the importance of first-language education as well. But this does not change the fact that getting financial help for running first-language classes is difficult.

“There’s a limit to what we can ask the volunteers to do and we cannot continue this forever. We need the government’s support,” said Emi Tsukamoto, 42, of the Toyota International Association.

This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on Sept. 1.

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