Supporting Japanese language education in local communities as professionals
Association for Japanese-Language Teaching (AJALT)
This month’s Close UP features the Association for Japanese-Language Teaching (AJALT), an organization devoted to promoting Japanese language education among a wide range of non-native speakers of Japanese, including businessmen and their families, exchange students, and interns. Today, the organization is also working on various projects, such as educating Japanese language instructors, assisting foreign residents in local communities to study Japanese, developing teaching materials, and conducting study and research on Japanese as a second language education. For the interview, we talked to Miyako Iwami, Managing Director of AJALT, and Akiko Sekiguchi, Director of Regional Japanese Education.
Ms. Iwami, Managing Director (right) and Ms. Sekiguchi, Director of Regional Japanese Education (left)
Can you briefly tell us about the history of AJALT?

AJALT’s office in Minato City

Iwami: In spring of 1970, Ms. Nishio, present chairman of AJALT, formed a research group on Japanese language education with more than a dozen volunteers, which became a forerunner of today’s AJALT. Back then, Japanese education mainly targeted exchange students. The group, however, saw the need for a place to learn Japanese among businessmen, researchers, diplomats, and other adult population. It was the time when our country’s economy continued to grow and the number of people studying Japanese was rapidly rising, making us realize that Japanese was not just for Japanese people anymore.
The research group officially became AJALT in 1977. The central activities of the early AJALT was to provide opportunities to study Japanese language to adults, mainly business people. As time went by, however, our programs gradually expanded and began including a wider range of students, such as Indochina refugees, interns, technical trainees, spouses of international marriages, children, and so on.

What makes AJALT’s Japanese language programs unique?
Iwami: I believe it is our educational policy in which we develop a detail-oriented study program according to the needs of each learner. This has not been changed since the beginning of the organization. To continue to provide quality language programs, we also support our member Japanese language teachers by offering them lifelong trainings. Currently, we have about 200 AJALT member teachers. At a regular training for the members we have on every other Thursday, we often invite guest lecturers and conduct study group projects whose results are shared with other members at the training.
A member teacher preparing for her presentation at a study group session
Can you tell us some details about AJALT’s support for community-based Japanese language education?

Sekiguchi: AJALT began supporting Japanese language programs in local communities in 1981. The first program we helped was a training course for new Japanese language teachers in Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture, which is often referred to as “little Kyoto” and is a popular destination among foreign tourists. Since then, we have organized a variety of programs and classes, such as teaching techniques workshops, volunteer trainings, or cross-cultural seminars, depending on how we were asked to help by local governments and international exchange groups nationwide. We can send our instructors to already existing programs or build a totally new program according to goals of a community we are assisting.

We understand that AJALT is also working on the promotion of Japanese language education among foreign children.

A booklet features a collection of interviews with ten former students who grew up in Japan as a foreign-origin child

Sekiguchi: We began supporting Japanese language education among local foreign residents and their children when we helped Indochina refugees learn Japanese. We found that refugee children often fell behind at school because of their insufficient language skills. Some children began having trouble communicating with their own parents as they gradually forgot their native language. Knowing the many problems that these children were facing as they tried to settle in a local community in Japan, we became strongly assured of the need to assist them in improving their Japanese ability.
Currently, we are running an evening Japanese class for children in Izumi Ward, Yokohama City (Kanagawa Prefecture) in collaboration with the Association for Supporting Refugees’ Settlement in KANAGAWA. The class has been offered over ten years now. We also send our instructors to elementary schools in Minato Ward (Tokyo). We offer classes in Shinjuku as well, which I would like to mention later in details. We would like to continue our support for young people in various situations.

As the number of permanent residents from overseas increases in Japan, issues surrounding children of foreign origin are becoming bigger. It is a responsibility for us adults to help solve the problems for these children who are going to support our future society. It is our understanding that we need to make our efforts with focus on what we can do in 10 years from now rather than providing a temporary solution.

Can you explain about the Japanese class offered in Shinjuku City?
“Kanji Daisuki” (I love kanji),
a series of textbooks on kanji characters for elementary school children,
is available for each grade level.

Sekiguchi: The class has been offered every March since 2008 under the operation of the former Shinjuku Foundation for Culture and International Exchange (current Shinjuku Foundation for Creation of Future). This is a 15-day immersion Japanese course targeting foreign children who are entering public elementary and junior high schools in Shinjuku City. What is unique about this Japanese course is that the instructors are not only Japanese native teachers but also include local foreign residents who support students as a native speaker of the students’ mother languages. Prior to the start of the course, we hold a training for those foreign supporters. In the past, we had Chinese, Korean, and Pilipino participants all of whom were long-term residents in Shinjuku.
In the class, we set a time for children when they are allowed to speak in their own native languages. By giving children a chance to express themselves freely in their own languages before having them challenge Japanese that they are not good at, we can help nurture their sense of self-respect, which is really important. Letting the children speak and listen different languages is also effective to promote understanding of different cultures among them. We are very proud of this meaningful project.

We understand that AJALT also supports people involved in Japanese language education in local communities.

Flashcards for “Kanji Daisuki” series
Sekiguchi: We receive e-mails asking our advice on various questions and problems, such as how to teach particles, how to motivate learners, issues about the class operation, difficulties in keeping children’s native language, and so on. We occasionally provide an on-site consultation, in which AJALT instructors visit the community and give a few hour consultation to local volunteer teachers who do not get many chances to receive trainings. When we once visited a town where couples with foreign wives lived, it became like a whole town meeting as teachers from childcare facilities and schools, people from the town hall, volunteers, and many other local people gathered to ask questions to our instructors. We are ready to visit any community as long as people have questions for us and can give us a place for meeting. We offer this service for free of charge.
We heard that you also provide teaching materials that can be modified freely by Japanese language educators in local areas.

Sekiguchi: One of the difficulties in teaching Japanese in local communities is that students come from diverse backgrounds. Some may not be able to attend all classes because of their job. Others may be fluent in speaking but cannot read or write at all. To ease the struggle of Japanese educators teaching for the community-based Japanese programs, we have developed a Database of Resources for Everyday Japanese, which is published and available on our website. Using this database, Japanese instructors are allowed to make their own teaching materials by searching appropriate topics that they want to teach by adding or changing the contents to fit their students’ needs. It is also to our advantage to have this database in that we can keep reviewing and updating the information based on the users’ feedback. As of May 27 this year, 6631 Japanese teachers have registered as users of this database. Anyone can use the database for free of charge by becoming a registered user on the AJALT’s official website.

“What are the challenges that community-based Japanese language education is currently facing?
Sekiguchi: Community-based Japanese language programs largely rely on volunteers’ help. However, the reality is that there is a certain limit to what grass-root efforts can do. What is needed is to promote collaboration between volunteers and specialists, to seek government assistance, and to establish an organized system that involves the community as a whole. So many aspects in our lives in Japan today are supported by foreigners, such as clothing, food, housing, or even traditional craftsmanship. We need, with a sense of crisis, to work hard toward solving issues surrounding Japanese language education for foreign residents in local communities. It is our role as the organization to make more people aware that the problems for these foreigners are also problems for us Japanese.
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