Japanese language program helps foreign children get ahead Japanese language program helps foreign children get ahead
Backstories

Japanese language program helps foreign children get ahead

    NHK World
    Correspondent
    A learning program in Yokohama is helping to break down the language barrier that makes Japanese school so daunting for newly arrived foreigners. The city's education board identified a growing need for support, and has pioneered a way of giving children a head start before they enrol in regular classes.

    The school is called Himawari, which translates to sunflower. In June, a class had ten children with foreign backgrounds. They came from the Philippines, China, Nepal and elsewhere.

    Himawari offers a monthlong intensive Japanese course to enable a smooth transition for elementary and junior high school children to local schools. A new class starts every month so applicants can attend soon after arriving in Japan.

    The children are divided into groups by age. They are also taught about local customs and culture, including having to clean their own classrooms and wearing indoor shoes inside buildings.

    About 700 students have attended the school since it opened in 2017.

    Children with various backgrounds participating intensive Japanese course at school Himawari, in Yokohama, June 2022. The classes are aimed at supporting students make a smooth transition to local schools.
    Children with various backgrounds participating intensive Japanese course at school Himawari, in Yokohama, June 2022. The program is aimed at supporting students make a smooth transition to local schools.

    Dustin Coronado, 13, is a recent graduate. He moved from the Philippines to join his parents who have settled in Japan for work. He started with the basics: learning how to write his name and introduce himself.

    He was worried from the outset. "The language has three writings – kanji, hiragana and katakana," said Dustin. "But I only know hiragana."

    Showing Dustin Coronado from the Philippines learning basic Japanese with a teacher in a class. He says he wants to learn Japanese so he can make friends.
    Dustin Coronado from the Philippines learning basic Japanese at the special language course Himawari. He says he wants to speak Japanese so he can make friends.

    More children in need of language support

    As the number of foreigners who settle in Japan has increased over the years, so has the number of children needing language support. According to the Education Ministry, about 58,000 public school students need help with Japanese language. Support is often limited, and varies by region.

    In Yokohama, near Tokyo, the number of students needing help has doubled over the last decade. Initially, education officials dispatched language instructors direct to schools. But that was not enough. Himawari was set up to bridge the gap.

    City education board official Miyagi Atsushi says it is important to help young students gain confidence as they start out. He explains that fitting in and enjoying school largely depends on how the experience begins.

    "Once they join elementary or junior high schools, they'll have to interact with many classmates in an unfamiliar language. Here, we aim to give them the language skills that will help them to get along with other students."

    Yokohama City Education Board official Miyagi Atsushi saying it is important that foreign children gain confidence as they start out.
    Yokohama City Education Board official Miyagi Atsushi says it is important that foreign children gain confidence as they start out in a new environment.

    At Himawari, Dustin Coronado learned everyday words and phrases that he will encounter at school. A language instructor taught the students how to create sentences, and a teacher checked their level of understanding.

    Dustin said it was helpful to become familiar with terms related to mathematics, especially the Japanese counting systems.

    Over the course of a month, Dustin progressed fast. At the end, he was able to write an essay and give a speech in Japanese.

    "I have improved my skills. I can understand Japanese now," he said. Teachers from his new school attended his course graduation ceremony and encouraged him to keep it up.

    Dustin and his classmates participates a class graduation ceremony after a month-long language course.
    Dustin and his classmates finished a month-long intensive course. He says his Japanese has improved.

    Yokohama's program is a success, with many schools elsewhere now calling for similar initiatives to help children from all backgrounds settle in.