Monday, January 30, 2006

Going Japanese In The Buckeye State

In and around Columbus, Ohio, live about 600 Japanese students who are trying to maintain proficiency in their home language while acquiring English and attending local public schools:
After a difficult week trying to learn a foreign language from teachers with vastly different styles from back home, about 600 Japanese students in Ohio look forward to Saturday -- for more school.

As Honda Motor Co., its suppliers and other Japanese companies transfer workers to operations in the region, Japanese students have become a fast-growing segment of English-as-a-second-language classes.

At the same time, their parents want them to keep up with Japanese language instruction in case they're transferred back to Japan.

A program that started in one family's basement in 1979 -- when Honda opened its plant in nearby Marysville -- has grown into the Columbus Japanese Language School.

The parent-run school has all-day Saturday classes for elementary through high school students in two schools in suburban Worthington. Students come as far as 88 kilometers to attend.

There are about 90 such schools in the United States serving some 50,000 Japanese children, according to Tokyo-based Japan Overseas Educational Services.

"In order to enter prestigious secondary schools and high schools, the students have to maintain age-appropriate Japanese-language ability even while they are in the U.S.," Saburo Iwasa, of the Overseas group, told the newspaper.

The day starts with calisthenics, a comforting reminder of school days back home, where uniforms are identical down to the book bags and the teachers are much stricter. Students work on repetitive drills to learn the complex written language -- memorizing 1,850 distinct characters by sixth grade.

"The U.S. system pays great attention on individual difference of learners and lets students learn from various angles," said Makoto Morioka, one of 35 teachers. The Japanese system "respects harmony, and students are taught not to disturb 'group dynamics."'

Families pay $55 a month per child through the ninth grade and $20 monthly for each high school-level class. The employers and Japanese Ministry of Education also support the school financially.

Most of the teachers are parents or college students, and supplement the part-time income with other jobs. Morioka also teaches English-as-a-second-language in Worthington middle schools, and teaches Japanese at Columbus State Community College.

While the drills are strict, the students often feel more comfortable, especially since they can speak in Japanese.

"Here, I'm open. I can be natural," said Ken Kawai, who attends sixth grade in the nearby suburb of Dublin, a district with 270 Japanese students.

The students also work hard to adjust to classes at their weekday schools. It can take 18 months or more for the children to get a good grasp of everyday English and six years to catch up academically, Iwasa said.

"We're asking these kids to do a lot, and most of them rise to the occasion," said Elana Hohl, a coordinator for the Dublin English-as-a-second-language program.

It's not only a difference of language, but of culture. The Japanese system demands respect and avoids conflict, while Americans stress individuality.

The students say the teachers are much different.

"In Japan, they can yell or scream," said Natsuki Kuno, 16. "They are strict."

Her 18-year-old sister, Mizuki, said the niceness of American teachers can leave her skeptical.

"Teachers say all the time, 'You're great. You're doing so good,"' Mizuki said. "I think, 'Really?"'

Still, students say they're starting to make friends.

Sisters Shihomi and Fumina Kiyonaga moved with their family three years ago.

They say classwork can be an opening to make friends.

"In Algebra 2, I had knowledge on it in Japan," said Fumina, 15. "I always had an A in the class. So everybody came up to me during group work.

"But that helped me with speaking English."

Shihomi, 16, said she's gotten over some of her initial shock at American culture.

"American people burp (in) front of people and throw things to each other," Shihomi said. "I was totally shocked.

"But as I became more acclimated to the U.S., my views changed a lot," she said. "Burping is still vulgar and bad, but I can stay with it. Throwing things -- I do this sometimes and my parents notice it all the time. I know that's bad, but I just can't stop doing that."
I think that the remarks offered by the students concerning the American and Japanese public education systems give us some first-hand insight into the differences between the two systems. What struck me was how 16-year-old Mizuki Keno expressed doubts about the sincerity of her American teachers when they praised her work.

At our junior high school here in California's "Imperial" Valley, our efforts to establish a "Saturday School" program for students in need of additional help was met with only lukewarm parental support.
See last week's Carnival Of Education right here and our latest education-related posts over there.