After I retired from my engineer career, I joined a volunteer group in Ryugasaki city, my hometown in Ibaraki Prefecture, teaching the Japanese language to non-native speakers. This group is made up of seven members at this point intime, basically providing Japanese lessons and learning support on a one-to-one basis once or twice a week. Our students are four adults of foreign origin and four non-native children commissioned from elementary or junior high schools. It seems that more and more people wish to learn Japanese. In fact, we accepted new students to provide our services: three children from September 2019 and two children from the following April. As most of our members are becoming elderly, we are facing the issue of labor constraints. Therefore, we are planning to host a training course for Japanese language volunteers to welcome new members.
It has been about five years since I joined this volunteer group. I have been involved in teaching and supporting five Japanese language learners: three adults and two elementary students who lacked sufficient Japanese skills. Although the period was too short for me to gain in-depth experience, I found there were a lot of things to consider.
Mother's Worries and Concerns
To begin with, I would like to present two women from China (Mrs. A and Mrs. B) to whom I am teaching Japanese. Mrs. A is a working mother who came to Japan with her husband about ten years ago. Then, five years ago, she obtained approval from her employer to allot some spare time for Japanese language learning, once a week. Thus, she came to our group to apply for Japanese lessons. She worked really hard and finally passed the level 2 (N2) Japanese-Language Proficiency Test. She is now studying for the level 1 (N1) test.
Mrs. B came to Japan about 18 years ago after she had married a Japanese man and had given birth to one son in China. Their primary language at home is Chinese because her husband and son can speak both Japanese and Chinese. This is convenient for Mrs. B, but she always feels uncomfortable with her limited Japanese skills. In fact, she understands spoken Japanese to a certain extent, but has not made much progress. Finally, she became determined to learn the language.
Both Mrs. A and Mrs. B are working hard, with an earnest desire to improve their Japanese skills. However, I found that they have worries in common not about themselves but about their sons, who are high school students. Their sons are preparing for university entrance examinations, which are approaching now. Their mothers are worried about the outcome and even worried about their finding a job after they complete higher education. After listening to their stories, I could not dispel their worries but express my sympathy towards them.
When Mrs. A came to Japan, her son was four and a half years old. She sent him to kindergarten, and there he readily learned how to speak Japanese. Then, he entered a local elementary school. At this school, he was bullied by his classmates. Mrs. A determined to stop sending him to school when he was a second-grader and left him in the care of her mother, who was still living in China.
When he became a fifth-grader, she recalled her son to Japan to live with her again. This time, she sent her son to another elementary school. By then, her son had forgotten how to speak Japanese, so she had to send him to cram school four times a week to catch up with his school studies. For secondary education, she sent her son to a private school that integrates junior and senior high school curriculums to ease the burden of entrance exams on him. The costs for this school were much higher. Although he seems to her to have no problem with the Japanese language, he seems to have difficulties in concentrating on studying due to his present low performances which have probably been affected by his past difficulties as a result from language issues. Therefore, Mrs. A is very worried about her son's future education and work.
Mrs. B's son was born in Japan. Her Japanese husband was extremely busy and could not spare the time for child-rearing. It was Mrs. B who mainly brought the child up in Chinese. Therefore, it is not surprising that the baby's first language was Chinese. Her son, however, gradually learned to speak Japanese as well while attending kindergarten and elementary school. She felt in particular that his Japanese skills had improved dramatically after he had entered elementary school. He became a bilingual child, speaking Japanese with his father and speaking Chinese with his mother. However, there is something she is worried about. She cannot read Japanese books with correct pronunciation and intonation. That is why it was Chinese books that she read to her son when he was very young.
She thought this might be disadvantageous to the development of his Japanese literacy. Now she is worried whether this experience has had an effect on his current Japanese skills. In addition, although he can speak Chinese with her, his ability to read and write Chinese is poor. Being bilingual might sound somewhat impressive, but she is concerned that her son has not acquired adequate proficiency in either Japanese or Chinese.
Both Mrs. A and Mrs. B were totally devoted to their children's education. Now, they are not sure whether their children had sufficiently overcome language gaps or whether they might have failed to achieve proper academic developments due to such language gaps. As a result, these mothers are very worried about their children's future prospects. In addition, Mrs. A's son will need to survive in Japanese society as a citizen of Chinese origin in the future. After listening to her story, I really hope that the Japanese society will be mature enough to accept and welcome him warmly when he enters adulthood.
Both Mrs. A's son and Mrs. B's son faced language barriers in Japan but worked hard until they reached the milestone of university entrance. We adults should think about their hardships and pay more attention to the difficulties faced at school by children of non-native Japanese speakers.
Next, I will give two examples of children I have supported, who are non-native Japanese speakers and are obliged to study at school with poor language skills.
Boy S was a third-grader at elementary school when I first met him. At that time, he had already spent two years since he came to Japan with his Chinese mother and sister, who was two years younger than him. His father is Japanese, so Boy S's nationality is Japanese. His mother tongue is Chinese because he lived with her mother in China until he enrolled in elementary school.
After he arrived in Japan, he was sent to elementary school and cram school, where he had interactive conversations and gradually learned how to speak Japanese with proper pronunciation. However, there are a lot of Japanese words, which he can pronounce but does not know the meaning of. For example, when he hears the word "Na-Mi" (meaning "wave"), he can pronounce it properly, but he does not understand what the word means because he does not know that Japanese people refer to rippling waves as "Na-Mi" in Japanese. In fact, he has faced such situations on numerous occasions, but he barely cares.
The important thing for him is to communicate and play with his friends. So, he does not feel he has any problems with the Japanese language and does not understand why he needs to study the language. His favorite pastime is playing with a game device, which his father bought for him, and at school, his favorite activity is drawing pictures. He does not like other subjects because he cannot understand them very well. He is sent to a cram school to learn mathematics and kanji. He definitely needs to finish homework sheets assigned from the cram school. Therefore, this is the most important task for him at the moment.
Boy S comes to our group to receive learning support while he is attending the after-school day-care program. However, what he does during the program is to work on homework sheets only. I thought it should be important for Boy S to read and understand Japanese sentences and asked him to practice reading some longer sentences. He did not show even the slightest interest in the other practice than those posed from his schools. I have realized the difficulty of teaching children. To learn the Japanese language, kanji drill books and mathematics homework are not appropriate because you can work on these formats without understanding the meanings of words.
Having no choice, I used Boy S's homework papers and asked him to read and think about the sentences in the papers as much as possible. When he completed the third grade at elementary school, his parents moved to another city. He was relocated to another elementary school, and hence, our support ended.
Boy T is also a Japanese national, and his mother is Chinese who cannot speak Japanese very well. His father is Japanese and can rarely spare the time for child-rearing due to his busy work schedule traveling between Japan and China. Boy T came to Japan shortly before he became a sixth-grader of elementary school. Since then, he has been studying Japanese at cram school. He gradually became able to understand daily conversation but still has difficulties in speaking, reading, and writing Japanese.
At elementary school in Japan, he cannot use his academic skills acquired in China, apart from mathematics. For example, the curriculum of science is very different from that of Chinese schools, and it is difficult for him to learn new things with his poor Japanese skills. Social studies, which include geography and history, are more difficult because he knows very little about Japan. In general, sixth-grade students are often asked to voice their opinions and write essays to express their ideas and feelings in their class. It is really difficult for Boy T to voice his opinions and express his thoughts with his poor Japanese skills. Even when he took school tests, he had to spend a long time just comprehending questions.
I thought Boy T has sufficient academic skills expected for sixth-graders, which, however, were not evaluated fairly under the Japanese education system. His participation status in the class and test results were compared to his Japanese classmates based on the same evaluation standards. Above all, the most serious problem is that he could not adequately follow the lessons due to the language barrier. This means he is hampered in opportunities to absorb new knowledge and learn ways of thinking about things.
Boy T received learning support once a week, but I thought this was definitely not enough to help him. Nevertheless, we could not afford to increase our support staff at short notice. In the end, Boy T graduated from elementary school and entered junior high school. Since then, we have not received any requests for learning support from him, his family nor his junior high school. In this way, our learning support for Boy T ended.
Summary: Children Desperately Need Learning Support
All of Mrs. A's and Mrs. B's sons, as well as Boy S and Boy T were obliged to encounter a new world, where their first language is not spoken, without regard to their will. Their lives were unreasonably affected by the convenience of adults. It is wrongly considered that children can acquire language quickly and easily. This may pose the risk that children's difficulties in learning are overlooked.
If children cannot receive appropriate education at each childhood stage, this may hinder their sound development and gradually generate a major obstacle in their future. Children who cannot speak Japanese bear extra hardships due to the language barrier. Not all children are aware of their problems. Some may behave actively while facing language hardships unconsciously. We adults should understand what difficulties non-native children would actually face if they were suddenly brought to Japan. It is our responsibility to support them warmly and wholeheartedly in overcoming such difficulties.
Non-native children are brought to Japan due to their parents' convenience, but the issue of language barriers cannot be solved by parents only. Their parents might have no way out but to do so within the structure of society. They need to ask for specialist support to address their children's problems. These issues should be addressed by reconsidering the education system of our society. For example, we should establish a support system to assess children's problems and determine what kinds of professional support they need, and provide such support appropriately.
The Japanese government is actively promoting the acceptance of non-Japanese because the country is facing a diminishing population and a shortage of labor. Therefore, the number of non-Japanese and Japanese national children who have poor Japanese skills is increasing. If these children are overlooked without receiving sufficient education and subsequently become social dropouts, this will pose a serious social problem.
According to an official document published by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology(1), a few schools have more than 100 students who have insufficient Japanese proficiency enrolled, whereas the majority of schools have only one such student. This kind of issue might be underestimated and overlooked as a minor problem in most regions. To solve such an issue that has a large volume in total but is widely dispersed geographically, support from each local community is essential. It is necessary to clarify the roles of local communities, local governments, and the central government, and enhance a system to support communal learning environments.
(1) "Reference Material 1: Education for Children with Insufficient Japanese Proficiency" published by MEXT on March 22, 2016 (in Japanese).