Language Education Specialist at the Japan Foundation Japanese-Language Institute, Kansai
(Former Japanese-Language Senior Specialist at the Japan Foundation, Bangkok)
It is estimated that Thailand has nearly 50,000 Japanese-language learners in secondary education (equivalent to junior high and high school in Japan), and these students can be divided into two groups: those who are able to spend ample time studying, based on a curriculum of more than six hours a week or more than 200 hours a year, and those with limited time, studying once a week or 30 to 50 hours a year in total.
Woes of having little time to study
In 2004, the Japan Foundation, Bangkok (hereafter abbreviated as JFBKK), in collaboration with the Thai Ministry of Education, developed a Japanese-language textbook for beginners titled Akiko to Tomodachi (Friends with Akiko), and this was designed for students who would be attending several lessons per week. The material comes in six volumes with a total of 30 units, starting with the Japanese alphabet and gradually expanding the scope of knowledge, and more than 80% of the 50,000 students learning Japanese-language in Thailand use this textbook.
However, the amount of material covered in Akiko to Tomodachi was so extensive that it would take 600 hours of study over three years to finish. For students with little time, clearly there was too much to learn, and since it also required students to study hard and remember what they learned in the previous lesson in order to keep up, it might not be the best textbook for students short on time.
I met high school teachers in places all over Thailand, and every time they would ask me to develop textbooks that would make it easier for students with little time to learn and would make them like learning Japanese-language.
Akiko to Tomodachi series: Textbook for students with ample time to study, published in 2004. With 30 units in six volumes, workbooks, and vocabulary book, the series is made up of 10 books. In total, more than 300,000 copies have been issued over 10 years.
Contributing to student growth and development through Japanese-language education
After discussing with a particularly competent staff member at JFBKK, who played a central role in the development of the Akiko to Tomodachi series, we decided to create a new Japanese-language textbook called the Koharu to Isshoni series. Since the main character in the first series was named "Akiko," (which literally means "autumn child"), we came up with the character's name for the next series as "Koharu" (which literally means "little spring").
To develop the textbook, we met some Thai teachers who were kind enough to help us and discussed various issues. What is the objective of studying Japanese-language just once a week in the first place? Or, what do we want children to learn from this textbook and how do we want them to grow up as adults? Do we want them to learn as many words as possible and be able to reach native-level fluency? Surely not. That would be impossible. Thus, our conclusions with regard to what we anticipated from studying Japanese-language through this textbook turned out to be as follows.
"We hoped children would grow up to be able and willing to speak Japanese to Japanese visitors without hesitation."
"We hoped children would grow up to be willing to try and communicate with Japanese visitors who are not fluent in Thai by using Thai, Japanese, or English words that they know."
"We hoped children would grow up to understand naturally that there are people with different languages and cultures, and that that is normal."
"We hoped children would grow up to be able to naturally cooperate with people of different languages and cultures and coexist together."
We felt it would be wonderful if students who engaged in Japanese-language studies with our textbooks could grow up to be such people.
Project based on classroom needs in Thailand
Thus, based on these basic principles, we spent three years developing the Koharu series in three volumes. The most distinct feature of the Koharu series is, as mentioned above, that the objective is not language acquisition in itself but growth as a human being through the experience of learning a foreign language. But there are also other unique aspects.
Firstly, since the Koharu series is for students with little time to study, it is designed in a way students do not need to memorize new vocabulary or grammar. Since the main objective is to offer a language experience within the classroom that trains students to remain undaunted when faced by different cultures, it does not force language studies on the students, thus avoiding the risk of developing a distaste for learning the subject.
With the Koharu series, there is no need for prior knowledge whichever unit you start with, since each unit is complete in itself. In other words, everyone is always at the same starting line, and hence there will be no dropouts. For these reasons, students can join the class even from the middle of a semester. Furthermore, each unit only introduces nine words or less, and the very simple dialogs, like "Koharu, which subject do you like at school?" "I like PE." Therefore, anyone can reasonably learn the language through this textbook.
The Koharu series also provides practical guides and teaching aids written in Thai for busy teachers with little time, to help them prepare for lessons without special effort. Meanwhile, the culture units include many color illustrations regarding various kinds of information to convey a favorable impression of Japan to students who know little about the country.
This material has all been prepared in response to actual classroom needs. This project has been made possible because JFBKK, particularly its excellent Thai staff, has been working together with the high school and university teachers of Thailand.
Three volumes of the Koharu to Isshoni series: Textbook for students with little time to study. The main character is a first year student in junior high school called Koharu. Nihongo Wa-i 1 and 2 is comprised of 38 units of simple situation dialog and 18 units about Japanese society and culture explained in Thai.
Making the experience of learning Japanese-language fun and meaningful
It is said that there are as many as two million junior high and high school students studying Japanese-language all over the world. But the reality is that learning the language may not have been their first choice, and they ended up studying it because of the educational framework they are in, or as a result of limited options. For them, the classroom is the first place where they learn about Japan or the Japanese-language, and this first impression becomes a major factor in determining their relationship with the Japanese-language later on.
Thus, the Koharu series was designed to be a textbook that provides an enjoyable and meaningful experience for students as they come into contact with the Japanese-language for the first time, or at least prevents them from hating the language.
The Koharu series started with the publication of the Hiragana Wa-i volume for learning the hiragana alphabet in March 2011, and then Nihongo Wa-i 1 and 2 to learn simple situation dialog and Japanese culture (in Thai language) in May 2012 and March 2013. Only two years since its first publication, more than 40,000 copies have already been issued --an amazing figure for a Japanese textbook overseas. It is an achievement that was only made possible because it was generated by actual needs and developed with the support of teachers in the classroom.
Now, Thailand has two types of Japanese-language textbooks for secondary education: for students who have extensive time to study and for others with little time to study. We believe that this kind of work is what is really needed and therefore very important.
Giving lectures at teacher training workshops as the JFBKK Japanese-Language Senior Specialist, not only in Thailand, but also in surrounding countries including Cambodia and Myanmar. (From left: Chiang Mai in Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar)