Japanese program finds its feet

Kayoko Fujii's classroom was buzzing with activity last week. In one corner students were using large calligraphy brushes to paint kangi characters, while in another they were calling out answers to a numbers game in Japanese.

The first-grade teacher moved to the front of the room where a small Japanese flag was clipped to the white board. She turned it over to reveal an American flag, and within a few seconds the chatter shifted to English.

Five months after launching the dual language Japanese language program at Verdugo Woodlands Elementary School, teachers said they are pleased with its direction and students' progress.

"It's been leaps and bounds," said kindergarten teacher Melanie Arayama. "It is a lot of oral development first. But they are saying the basics."

Japanese is among the newest of the Foreign Language Academies of Glendale, the language immersion programs first introduced in Glendale Unified in 2001.

The Verdugo Woodlands program was developed after lobbying from local families. It includes two kindergarten classes and one first-grade class with a total of 70 students.

About 70% of those enrolled have some sort of connection to Japan, said project specialist Mike Jaffe. But only about 20% have strong Japanese language skills. The breakdown is pretty close to what FLAG officials were aiming for — one-third Japanese-speaking, one-third English-speaking and one-third bilingual.

"It is desirable because it allows students to become very good language models for each other, both in English and Japanese," Jaffe said. "It is a strong motivator to communicate with the friends you are playing with either in the target language or in English."

Officials intend to grow the program by one grade level each year until there are 12 dual language Japanese classes, kindergarten through sixth grade, Jaffe said.

Japanese is a difficult language to master, teachers said, and some students have no idea why they are being taught a foreign language. And learning to read and write is even tougher — Japanese is written in a mix of hiragana and Chinese characters, so students must master both.

Teachers get their point across by pairing verbal instructions with exaggerated hand gestures.

"It is a whole new language and alphabet for the students," Arayama said. "There are a lot of students who have never heard of Japanese before, and I am not allowed to speak English in class."

The school is offering a crash course in Japanese for non-native-speaking parents so that they can help with homework, Jaffe said.

Verdugo Woodlands parent Mitsuko Roberts speaks to her four children exclusively in Japanese. She was among those who pushed the district to launch the Japanese dual language program, and her daughter Minami is enrolled in its inaugural class.

"I am the only one in the family who lives here," Roberts said. "My mother is [in Japan], my brother is there, all my relatives are back there. When we go back to Japan, I really want [my children] to be comfortable speaking the language."

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