In order to support your child’s Japanese language development at HIS, an understanding of the meaning of an ‘English medium’ curriculum is important. The definition is relatively simple; the language of instruction is English (with the exception of the Japanese language class, of course). However, there are implications for student learning that need to be considered, particularly when parents who attended an Article 1* school compare their own school experiences with Japanese learning to that of their child in an English medium IB program. There are implications for Japanese language learning for families who choose an English medium curriculum.
(*An Article 1 school is one that delivers the Japanese National Curriculum and therefore receives government funding. This includes every public and private school in Hiroshima Prefecture except HIS and the Korean School.)
Implication 1: Our worldview on education is shaped by our experiences
It is inescapable. We interpret the world through our own experience. We consider experiences that we have had as normal. Theories explaining culture shock all revolve around this notion, the confrontation of difference challenging deeply help and often unconscious assumptions about the way the world works. The way the world ‘did’ work becomes the way the world ‘should’ work. This is just the way our brains are wired. In an Article 1 Japanese medium school, Japanese is taught in a very specific way all over Japan, heavily structured by MEXT and the respective local Boards of Education. It is understandable that parents who experienced one very specific approach to learning may assume that this is ‘the’ approach to teaching and learning, rather than one of a variety of possible approaches.
The passionate debates at HIS about the need for weekly kanji tests are an excellent example of the emotion triggered when our assumptions are challenged. The IB programs at HIS are concept-driven and inquiry-based. There may be many approaches to teaching and learning that differ from our own childhood experiences. For example, the absence of a weekly testing regime does not mean that testing does not happen. At HIS a variety of assessment strategies are used. Tests are one of the strategies we rely on, but they are one part of a larger repertoire of assessment strategies. It is just a different approach.
Implication 2: The need to use language in context
Students learn a variety of different academic disciplines in the PYP, MYP and DP. Langauge is one of these disciplines and students learn both English and Japanese. They learn the languages. They learn about the languages. They learn through the languages. However, of all the different academic disciplines that are part of the IB programs, only one of these subjects is Japanese. In all other subjects, students are learning through English, encountering the English language within these academic contexts.
In an Article 1 (Japanese public or private) school, Japanese is used in an academic context at school all day, every day except for in English class, where quite a bit of Japanese is still often used. Students learn and practice the kanji in their Japanese class (Kokugo) that will be encountered in context throughout the rest of the school day in all other subjects. It will be practised and reinforced all day, every day, and in regular homework tasks, across all subject disciplines. Furthermore, MEXT prescribed texts for other subjects are designed to contain the same kanji that students will encounter during their Japanese (Kokugo) class. For this reason, Kokugo class is able to focus significant time on drill and other practice-based tasks as the use of the language items (such as specific kanji) will be encountered within-context at other times during the day. It is not that using language within-context is unimportant in the Kokugo class, rather it is that the system allows for language usage within-context outside of the regular Kokugo class all day long. In our Japanese classes at HIS, which exist within the English medium program, kanji that specifically relates to the unit of inquiry is introduced in class in order to allow students to use that kanji in context during the unit of inquiry as it is not otherwise encountered outside of Japanese class. For this reason, it is not possible to have an English medium curriculum that teaches Japanese in the same way that Kokugo is taught in Japanese schools.
One of the challenges for HIS is that we have a significant population of parents who have experienced a Japanese medium curriculum and draw their understanding of how Japanese learning should be from these prior experiences. However, in an English medium curriculum when students learn Japanese we need to provide that context for language use within the Japanese class itself. This means that the teaching of Japanese will look different in Japanese and English medium curriculum models.
Implication 3: A time to practice
In an English medium curriculum, opportunities for using Japanese language items in context must be provided within the classroom so the time available for drills and practice is limited. For this reason, depending on the hopes and aspirations of the student and their family, significant time for practice must be included in routines at home. It is not realistic, considering the time available for Japanese language study in an English medium program, for all academic language exposure in Japanese to occur during school hours. However, we do experience misconceptions regarding this. For example, I have had conversations with parents who want their children to ‘keep up’ with the students in a Japanese school, yet do not engage in Japanese reading at home nor practice kanji outside of school hours. Clearly, expectations in such cases are not realistic.
There is a multi-billion dollar (over 3 hundred billion yen annually) Juku industry in Japan catering to students in Japanese schools who need to practice kanji even after spending all day in Japanese medium programs encountering kanji in context across all subjects. It would seem reasonable to assume that a student in an English medium program would need to engage in some form of practice outside of school hours as well. Those reading and writing routines that you develop at home are vitally important for HIS.
To be clear, it is possible to maintain a high level of academic Japanese while studying in an English medium program, however, there must be an ongoing engagement in the use of academic Japanese in context at home to support the learning at school. Reading developmentally appropriate Japanese literature and academic texts, ongoing discussions about the texts and independent practice of kanji and vocabulary are examples of ways that Japanese language learning can continue at home. It is possible for a student to maintain a high level of academic Japanese in an English medium program, but only if the family is prepared to consistently support the learning at home. This is an important understanding for all of our families at HIS.