The Elementary Japanese Language Program

Marc L’Heureux (elementary school principal), Genta Branstetter (elementary school associate principal) and the Elementary School’s Japanese teachers recently offered presentations and activities in the multi-purpose room to give parents an insight into the Japanese language curriculum and how language learning is changing.

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Kita-sensei handed out magnets with various kanji on them to parents surrounding a whiteboard. “Probably when you were at school, you spent a lot of time memorizing kanji by writing out each character multiple times without really understanding the different types of kanji and how they are related,” he explained. “In our Japanese classes, we want the students to understand the deeper concepts relating to kanji and be able to process kanji they haven’t come across before.”

He went on to show examples of four types of kanji, some simple kanji that are based on the physical shape of what they mean such as one, two, three or the character for tree. Other kanji are more complex and he details how teachers approach explaining the more abstract kanji so they are equally understandable.

The parents then faced the challenge of deciding which of the four groups their kanji belong to—the results and answers were sometimes surprising. Kita-sensei continued, “When we were in school, there was a lot of emphasis on handwriting and memorization. Until recently university and job applications had to be handwritten, but that is changing and now the majority of writing is done on devices and not by hand. Today, we focus on understanding meaning and concepts over handwriting drills and memorization.”

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At two other stations in the multi-purpose room, other groups of parents learned about depth versus breadth in the classroom and the importance of supporting their learners at home. Before they had split into groups, the attendees had the opportunity to hear high school students from a heritage track class share their experience in the Japanese language program at ASIJ. Speaking in Japanese, students showcased their fluency in the language and gave parents a view of the end result for students following the heritage track all the way through to high school. “We are losing children to other foreign languages such as Spanish and Chinese as they progress through the school,” Marc said as he explained why it was important for students wishing to become bilingual to continue their Japanese language development after elementary school.

The presentation covered advancements that come with learning and understanding Japanese, including career opportunities, community development and becoming a global member. Marc outlined their goal to parents, “Our philosophy is about developing effective communicators and deepening students understanding of Japanese culture, preparing them to participate in a global society.”

Genta and Marc went on to talk about changes adopted by Monbukagakusho (Ministry of Education) to adapt to the latest research in education and the similarities in their approach and Common Core standards. The Common Core places a stronger emphasis on reading comprehension and a focus on academic vocabulary, using evidence from the text in analysis and in defending claims and building knowledge through rich nonfiction. Summarizing the elementary school’s approach Genta said, “We want our Japanese language learners to apply the same techniques they are using in their English lessons to dive deeper into the Japanese texts that they read.”