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An elementary school teacher from Aichi Prefecture has developed a unique new way for foreign children to learn Japanese from flash cards.

The Niwatori-style kanji cards created by 56-year-old Noriko Niwa let elementary school children learn kanji with their first language.

Niwa has also developed tests to evaluate a child’s proficiency in kanji.

The teacher at Komakiminami Elementary School hopes her flash cards will help children of foreign descent as well as organizations supporting their education in Aichi and elsewhere.

There are 256 cards for grades 1 and 2. The front of each bears a kanji and its “onyomi” and “kunyomi” pronunciations. The onyomi is from the original Chinese and the kunyomi from Japanese. It also depicts the character with a picture and provides an example sentence.

The other side of the card displays translations of the example sentence in six languages including English, Portuguese and Tagalog.

The package comes with a pen-shaped audio device that reads the translations aloud when you point it at them.

For example, the card for “yama” (mountain) provides the sample sentence “I climbed Mount Fuji with Mr. Yamakawa” below the kanji and a picture of a mountain.

In this way, the student learns kanji not only by memorizing the shape but also by studying its meaning and the ways it is pronounced. They can also refer to their first language on the back when needed.

Niwa provides cards for different levels up to Grade 6.

Since she started teaching foreign children in 1992, she has seen many struggle to master Japanese, even the brightest ones. Many give up on going to high school because learning kanji is so difficult.

Realizing that the main hurdle was the kanji, she came up with the idea of developing her own flash cards.

Most study aids group kanji by meaning, such as body and nature, but Niwa’s cards are based on the number of strokes needed to write them.

Since her materials are printed on cards rather than books, they can also be used to play “karuta,” a popular Japanese educational game.

The term “niwatori” (chicken) comes from her nickname provided by her students, who based it on her surname.

Most foreign students speak Japanese at school but use their first language to communicate at home.

Many cannot read or write well in their first language either, since they rarely use the written form. As a result, they have low proficiency in both Japanese and their first language.

“Development of language skills is connected to a child’s mental development, and that means they pick up Japanese more easily if they are also proficient in their first language,” Niwa said.

Last year, Niwa established the nonprofit organization Niwatori no Kai to promote the use of her flash cards in international elementary and junior high schools and among groups that support the education of foreign children.

She held the first proficiency test in July this year and the second is scheduled for the end of the year.

“This way, young children get two chances a year to be praised for their hard work,” Niwa said.

Students who pass the test are awarded a certificate.

“I hope this new study material will help students who have given up studying because of the difficulty of learning kanji,” she added.

Further information can be found on the “Niwatori no Kai” website (www.niwatoris.org)

This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on Nov. 12.

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