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Text: Makoto Chiba | Pictures: Makoto Chiba, Shiho Torii

Did you know that the city of Turku provides native language education in many different languages? This native language (mother tongue) education is meant for pupils whose native language is other than Finnish or Swedish. According to the Finnish constitution, everyone living in Finland has the right to maintain and develop their own language and culture.

Currently teaching is given in over 30 different languages in Turku. The mission of the native language education is to strengthen pupils’ linguistic skills and the understanding of one’s own cultural identity. Pupils who have learned the language abroad can also participate in the teaching. The lessons are usually held after the school day in specifically selected schools. Japanese language education is also included in this program. The program is for pupils of basic education.

This time I got an opportunity to talk with the Japanese language teacher Shiho Torii. In this interview, she introduces the Japanese language class and shares how important role the class plays in pupils’ lives who have different linguistic and cultural background.

Please tell me what brought you to Turku and the reason why you started your career here as a language teacher. Tell us about yourself and what you are doing in Finland.

I studied Japanese linguistics and literature at a university in Japan. When I was doing a Master’s degree in Japan, I got an opportunity to study how to teach the Japanese language to foreigners. I was interested in this although the theme of my study was the other and this opportunity was a turning point in my career.

In 2014, I came to Finland to do an internship in an elementary school because I was also interested in the Finnish education system when Finland ranked 1st in the PISA survey and got huge attention from all over the world. I did an internship as an assistant and at the time I also taught Japanese language and culture to Finnish pupils, which was the first time I taught Japanese to foreigner.

After the internship, I returned to Japan once and came back to Turku again in 2016. Then I started officially my career as a Japanese native language education teacher.

1. Class history

When did the Japanese language education start?
Native language education started over 20 years ago, and it has a long history. The Japanese native language education is relatively new as it started only in 2011 in Turku.

2. Curriculum

What kind of study curriculum do you use in the Japanese language class? Do you follow the Japanese or Finnish curriculum?
Our study curriculum changes yearly depending on the needs of the native language education. In my Japanese class, I mix both Japanese and Finnish study curriculum. I use a Japanese textbook in my class, similarly as we use in schools in Japan.

What is the study schedule? What is the duration of one class? How often is the Japanese language class held?
The class is held once a week. Since I have pupils of various ages, I divide them into three different study groups. I change the length of the class depending on the number of pupils. When I have fewer pupils in the class, the class lasts a little bit over 1 hour and when I have more pupils, it lasts longer.

3. Bilingualism and linguistic education

Do you teach also Japanese culture in this language class?
I teach mainly the Japanese language but at the same time, I try to teach Japanese culture as well. The main reason why I am using Japanese textbooks is that pupils can also learn Japanese culture from the textbook. The textbooks used in Japanese schools include cultural aspects.

Do you teach in two languages? Some kids have different backgrounds and different levels of understanding of a language. Do children study in both languages?
I teach mainly in Japanese and sometimes I teach in Finnish as well depending on the pupil’s level of language understanding.

4. Teachers

Are you the only teacher in this class?
Yes, I am the only teacher for this class. The number of teachers is in accordance with the number of pupils. For example, there are more pupils in Arabic class, so there are more teachers as well.

5. Pupils

Who are your pupils? How many pupils are there in the class?
90 % of our pupils have either a Japanese mother or father and the rest are native Japanese who have moved to Finland due to their parents’ work. There are in total 16 pupils in my class and the number of pupils is increasing year by year.

6. Special programs

Do you have any special programs like we normally have in Japanese class such as sports festival or school play?
Unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of program in our curriculum. I wish we could have those kinds of events as well. But sometimes at the end of the semester, we go for a walk, gather around, and have a small party in the park. Last summer, we also held a BBQ party with pupils and their parents during summer vacation. This event was meaningful not only for pupils but also for their parents. New pupils and their parents can also get along with other pupils and their parents, so I am pretty sure that they are happy with it.

7. The uniqueness of the class

Is there any Japanese language class in other cities?
There are in Helsinki, Jyväskylä, Tampere, and other big cities as well. A condition for participating in the teaching of native language changed from this autumn semester. Only pupils who are living or go to school in Turku city are allowed to come to the Japanese class in Turku. The new pupils who are living outside of the city of Turku, are not allowed to participate in the class. Luckily this new condition is not applied to the pupils who enrolled in class last year or earlier.

In what way is your class different from others? What is special about it?
We have a network with other Japanese teachers living in different cities.
We often discuss and share the progress of the study and the quality of the teaching and try to learn from others. It would be ideal if the level of teaching was same in every city.

8. Plans for the future

What are your future wishes regarding the Japanese language class?
I want more people to know about the existence of this native language education. I was surprised that many people still don’t know what it exactly is.

Do you keep track of what graduates do? Do you know where they land?
I don’t have any graduates yet from my class. This class is for pupils from elementary school to high school. Next year, the first one will graduate from my class.

Is there anything that could be improved?
As I mentioned in question 7, the new rule is applied from this autumn, and pupils who are living outside of the city of Turku are not allowed to come to the class anymore. But honestly, I want pupils to be able to participate in this class regardless of where they are living.

As far as I know, the budget for native language education is smaller in Turku than in other cities. In other cities, the budget is decided based on the number of pupils, but in Turku, the budget is decided based on the number of classes. Even though the number of pupils increases, the budget won’t change. If the city of Turku could allocate more budget for native language education, I could buy more textbooks and better learning materials for pupils.

9. Achievements

What are you most proud of?
I am teaching Japanese to the pupils in an interactive way. During the class, they do reading, writing, listening, and speaking by using different learning methods and materials so that they can enjoy learning Japanese. Even though I am following our study curriculum, every pupil has a different goal of language acquisition they want to pursue, so I try to be flexible and teach them according to their goals. Each pupil has a different background, and each pupil’s parents think differently about how much they want their kids to understand Japanese and incorporate the Japanese language into their daily life. The most important thing in teaching Japanese to the pupils is to let them understand their identity. With the help of the language, they can nurture their identity as individuals who have different cultural background.

10. Challenges and difficulties

Do you encounter any difficulties in your work?
Fortunately, I have network with other cities Japanese language teacher in addition I have wonderful colleagues of other languages teachers in Turku, but As I said in the previous question, I am the only teacher in this class and generally I work alone. Sometimes, it is difficult to know if my teaching method is right or not. It would be better and helpful if I could work with someone or easily share both good things and problems more with others.