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Immersion an effective way to develop children’s language skills

By Mikiko Miyakawa / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

EUGENE, Ore. — Since their introduction about four decades ago, language immersion programs have proved highly successful in the United States, as more people there have developed an increased awareness of the importance of learning foreign languages and have recognized immigrant children as important resources in society. As Japan prepares for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games and globalization beyond, it could also try introducing such programs in more schools to improve children’s proficiency in foreign languages.

Located in the picturesque city of Eugene, Ore., Yujin Gakuen has cultivated Japanese language education for children in the city for almost three decades.

With Japanese-themed motifs such as cherry blossoms, Mt. Fuji, carp streamers and the rising sun, the huge, colorful mural at the school entrance instantly captures the hearts of everyone who visits the school.

“Fourth- and fifth-graders of the school created the artwork last year,” said Izumi Sakimoto, a Japanese parent of Yujin Gakuen students. She moved to Eugene with her American husband so their children could attend the school.

Yujin Gakuen is the first Japanese language immersion program at a public primary school in the United States. The school opened with 25 students in 1988 and now has about 300 students. Language immersion is a way of teaching language by completely immersing learners in that language for significant periods of time.

The school provides a “partial immersion” program in which up to 50 percent of subjects are taught in the foreign language. At Yujin Gakuen, students spend half their day in Japanese and the other half in English. The children are from various backgrounds. Some, like Sakimoto’s children, have ties with Japan.

“Our focus is more on teaching content in the Japanese language, as opposed to the Japanese teacher at a middle school who is teaching Japanese grammar, Japanese conversation skills,” Yujin Gakuen Principal Tom Piowaty said.

In a class in Japanese for second-year students, children were doing exactly what their counterparts in Japan do at the beginning of a class to the calls of “kiritsu” (stand up), “rei” (bow) and “chakuseki” (sit down).

Then, a pair of students stood in front of the class and asked other students, in clear Japanese, such questions as, “Who is absent today?” and “How many students are absent today?”

“They are pretty good when they follow certain patterns. But they still need some practice to speak on their own,” said Kumiko-sensei, who has been teaching at the school since 1993.

Piowaty said the school is trying to provide more opportunities for children to speak with each other in Japanese in what is called the morning meeting or class meeting, in which students sit in a circle and take turns speaking about a theme set by the teacher.

History and popularity

According to Setsumi Suematsu, who has been teaching at the school for 25 years and is known as Jimei-sensei to parents and students, Eugene had Spanish and French immersion schools before Yujin Gakuen opened. A survey was conducted to ask local residents which immersion program they would prefer in their school district out of Chinese, Russian and Japanese. Japanese was the most popular choice.

Suematsu assumes Japan’s strong economic presence back then was a factor in this choice. Now, a Chinese immersion school in the district is being considered, but it has yet to come to fruition, she said.

According to Nancy Rhodes of the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) in Washington, D.C., languages taught at U.S. schools clearly reflect social interest at the time.

The United States had more Russian language programs from the 1970s to the 1990s because there was great interest in Russia during this period. But, with the passage of time, Russian programs have waned, according to Rhodes. While programs of many languages are declining, Spanish is greatly increasing in popularity, as are Chinese and Arabic to some extent, she said.

Asian languages, especially Japanese and Chinese, tend to be more popular on the West Coast because of its relative proximity to Asia. Japan’s pop culture, such as manga and anime, also might contribute to the popularity of Japanese, Rhodes added.

At Yujin Gakuen, some students even started to dress up as anime characters about five or six years ago, like cosplayers in Japan, Suematsu said. “I don’t think any parents knew about Japan’s anime or manga 25 years ago, but some of them became interested in Japanese pop culture during the Tamagotchi craze in 1997 and 1998, and some children started wearing T-shirts featuring Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh characters,” she said.

There is also a perception among local residents that children at the school develop good study habits, such as getting used to doing homework at a young age, and learn to be disciplined and responsible, according to Piowaty. “When they go to middle school, they have those skills already,” he said.

As the school mural indicates, Yujin Gakuen also teaches students about Japanese culture. “Parents told us that they very much appreciate learning about the culture of Japan,” Piowaty said. “We have a lot of music, art, things you do not necessarily expect to go along with learning a language.”

Immersion’s success in U.S.

The number of foreign language immersion programs in the United States increased over the 40 years since 1971, according to CAL statistics in 2011. Growth has continued since then as some states are actively promoting the programs. For example, Utah promotes a statewide initiative for language immersion, and it now has more than 100 immersion schools, Rhodes said.

What is most significant about immersion education in the United States is “two-way immersion,” programs that give equal emphasis to English and another language and in which from one-third to two-thirds of the students are native speakers of the other language, with the remainder being native speakers of English, according to Rhodes.

Reasons for the success of immersion programs in the United States include people’s increased awareness of the need to learn a second language amid the increasing globalization of society and the economy, and the influx of immigrant children who come to school already speaking another language, particularly Spanish.

In the two-way Spanish immersion program, not only do native English speakers become fluent in Spanish but Spanish speakers also develop academic skills in their native tongue, Rhodes said.

Parents also feel these programs give their children an advantage. “Some of our parents see the benefits of learning more than one language,” Piowaty said.

Like many other U.S. schools, Yujin Gakuen has students who speak Spanish at home, and their parents apparently want their children to learn a third language in addition to English and Spanish, Piowaty added.

Immersion programs, which seem to have evolved as American society has changed, have developed into an essential part of language education in the country.

“I think language immersion in the United States is the best way we have ever found in this country to educate young children to high levels of proficiency in the language,” Rhodes said.

Though language immersion programs have yet to be widely used in Japan, steps should be taken to promote such programs where possible, by taking advantage of an increasing number of children of non-Japanese parents in this country.