Mapping the two-alphabet language

17th March 1995 at 00:00
Hugh de Sarum has to work harder than the other members of the class preparing for their Japanese GCSE at Marlborough College. For one thing, he's a teacher at the school; for another, it's important that he does well because next year he will be teaching the language himself. In addition to the lessons he shares with pupils, he has supplementary tuition and can rely on the expert support offered by the Japanese Language Association.

"Using this training system, with no disruption to the teachers' or pupils' timetables, schools could have a permanent member of staff who will be able to teach Japanese at beginners' level, " says Joyce Jenkins, the director of JLA, a nationwide organisation based in Bath. It is just one of the many initiatives being conducted by the association which offers an indispensable range of services to teachers of Japanese. Last year the JLA and Ms Jenkins won awards from the Japan Festival Fund.

Those contemplating adding the language to the timetable should regard the Pounds 20 it costs to join the JLA as the first and wisest investment to make. For that, they will receive regular newsletters and journals; the opportunity to participate in training days, refresher courses and access to a comprehensive database of materials, courses and available teachers.

Joyce Jenkins is convinced that the language is ideally suited for the classroom. "Pronunciation isn't difficult as there aren't any sounds we don't use in English. The grammar's relatively straight forward. Children don't need what's usually thought of as an aptitude for language to do it. And because it's so different from anything they've done before, pupils who might have struggled with European languages feel they are starting on the same footing as everyone else."

But she has to concede that the writing system is daunting. The language has two distinct alphabets hiragana and katakana which are used concurrently. But even when students have learnt them, they can't read or write Japanese until they've memorised enough kanji, the 46,000 ideographs that represent complete words. Japanese children have to learn nearly 900 by the end of primary and a further 1,000 in high school. British pupils need to know about 300 for GCSE.

Over 90 schools are currently offering pupils the chance to study Japanese, and many more would if only there were enough Japanese nationals willing and able to teach it here. So most native speakers working in this country are untrained and depend on the support offered by JLA to master the pedagogic skills they need.

Despite a PGCE course in Nottingham, and a new one at the London Institute of Education, both of which offer Japanese as a subsidiary language, few British teachers are formally qualified to teach the subject. Many brave souls, however, still manage to do so, thanks to the support of the JLA.

Japanese Language Association: 0225 483913

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