Japanese language learning, a new way

Japanese language learning, a new way

Added In: Resources › Japanese study

Judith Fischer

I immediately knew I wanted to study Japanese here when I saw the lively scene at Heartful City in Gifu. People were sitting in pairs or in small groups. They were gesturing, talking, reading and laughing. I have experienced several Japanese language schools, but this one was clearly the most tempting. It looked like everybody was very comfortable.

Thus, the name of the place, Heartful City, matches. Heartful City is located on the second floor in the Eastern part of JR station at Gifu city. The space, provided by Gifu City, is open for different activities. One of them is the Japanese language school Ayu no Kai (gathering of the sweet fish), which is run completely by volunteers.

It was Izumi Fujita who founded the school six years ago with four students and ten teachers. “We want to support foreigners”, says Ms. Fujita. “We can help them by offering our knowledge and by teaching them our language.” Now around 65 students attend Ayu no Kai, where 40 teachers are waiting for them almost every day, that is Tuesday to Friday, 10:00 to 10.30 am and 1:00 to 2.30 pm. The students come from many different countries. Ms. Fujita cites China, Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brazil, Portugal, Germany, Switzerland, France and many others. When she talks about the people from all those countries, her eyes are beaming and she seems to have unlimited energy, passion and patience, to teach not only Japanese, but also to arrange the lessons and match the students with the teachers.

When Ms. Fujita started the school she could not imagine that it would grow so large. “We just kept on doing things step by step, and gradually we more and more students and teachers joined”, she says. Last year the school was awarded a trophy as a token of appreciation from the town’s major. But Ms. Fujita is not a person to rest on her laurels. She wants to go further. As a start she has engaged foreigners to teach Japanese to newcomers. Right now a few are doing this, but she wants to welcome more and more to the teaching staff. Secondly, the school has opened classes for children as well.

Students at the Ayu no Kai not only benefit from an inspiring atmosphere in the classroom, but they get private or semiprivate lessons, so everybody can proceed at his or her own pace. Complete beginners start with a book recommended by the school, others bring their own book or practice free conversation. The beginner’s book provides a soft start. After that, students are supposed to have completed studying hiragana and katakana, which has to be done at home. “There is no time for that during the class hours”, says Ms. Fujita, making it clear that students cannot expect everything to be served up on a plate. But what they can expect is a helping hand in case they get lost.

“I really like my teacher very much”, says Svetlana from Ukraine. She sits together with her teacher and they look at each other, smiling. “Coming here gives me a warm feeling and the class is very good”. Svetlana just completed all the kanji from first grade elementary school. Now, she is going on to the second grade kanji. Her teacher, who had been working as an accountant for more than 30 years, is proud of her student. After retiring from her job she stayed at home, enjoying putting her feet up. But after a while she started feeling that she wanted to do more. So she started teaching and found interesting and engaging.

Another student, who comes from China, expresses her gratitude to her teacher: “Whenever I come here, it is in my mind how much my teacher helps me”, she says. Her teacher explains that she wants to pass her knowledge to her student. “And, by doing so, I can learn more about my own language” she confesses.

Also Annie, from Canada, who is fond of the Japanese traditional arts, appreciates the school. “I can practice Japanese and I can meet many people from many different countries”, she says, adding that she finds Japanese a very difficult language. And she points out that since French, and not English, is her mother tongue, she feels it even more difficult as all the textbooks she has seen so far are written, if not in Japanese, in English. “This is very hard for me”.

David, from Australia, thinks that the school is very helpful for him. “I respect my teachers very much. They are very enthusiastic and they do great work for the foreigners living in this area”, he says. “I would be very happy if I could go home with some Japanese proficiency. That would be a very special thing.”

In short, Ayu no Kai seems to be very enjoyable, the students like their teachers and they can learn a lot. Moreover, the school is almost free. The fee for a 90-minute private or semiprivate lesson is 200 Yen. How is this possible?

Well, only thanks to the goodwill and open mind of the teachers who work as volunteers. In fact, they only get 100 Yen for teaching one student for 90 minutes; that is not even enough to pay for the transportation to come to the school. Nor for a latte. So why do the teachers show up regularly and even prepare the lessons at home, basically for free?

The teachers have of course different backgrounds and thus, their motives surely differ. But those I talked to said that they wanted to help. That they wanted to share what they have, which would be their knowledge. And that it is an opportunity for them to learn more about different cultures and more about their own culture.

Experts in the topic of intercultural understanding point out that the integration of foreigners into a society should be a bilateral process. Both sides need to make efforts in order to understand each other. I agree. Partly. But I do not think that we, who came to this country, can expect that the onus should be on the locals to meet us on our terms; we must make the initial effort to adapt.

When I watch the classes it is obvious that students and teachers alike enjoy interacting with each other. But for me, the students have the easier road to follow. And one thing is for sure. All those Japanese teachers have opened their hearts. Voluntarily. To meet us foreigners.

Come and join
The Ayu no Kai is located at Heartful City on the second floor in the Eastern part of JR Gifu station. Class hours Tue-Fri 10-11.30 am and 1-2.30 pm. For information and registration call Izumi Fujita 090-993-585-71. Besides this school, there are a lot of other Japanese classes taught by volunteers. Check at your local community center or ward office for information.

Japanese language learning, a new way
Japanese language learning, a new way