The benefits of learning a second language, particularly from a young age, are well documented. It's not all about career prospects—although there are definitely advantages to being able to speak more than just English.
Speaking another language allows people to move beyond their own, perhaps limited, experiences, make new friends, travel and understand the world through the eyes of a different culture. In addition, language study is also known to be able to help improve your problem-solving skills, your ability to multitask and your creativity.
So, why choose Japanese?
Globally, Japanese is the ninth most commonly used language and is considered the gateway to learning other Asian languages. If your goal is to become an Asian language polyglot, Japanese is a good language to learn first with its similarities to Korean grammar, the common use of Kanji characters for writing and reading, and its use of a lot of vocabulary from Chinese.
Japanese culture is also both unique and fascinating. What better way to truly understand a country's culture than through its language system?
You're probably already using Japanese words without realising it. Think about the sushi you eat, the manga you read and the anime you watch. Alone, these won't make you fluent, but it's certainly a good start.
There many different places where you are able to learn Japanese. In 2017, Japanese was listed as the most commonly taught language in Australian schools, out of the 16 priority languages identified in the Australian Curriculum. However, this does not mean you are guaranteed to be able to study Nihongo while you're at school as the availability, and the level, vary greatly.
For people who really want their children to have Japanese lessons during their compulsory schooling years, or for young students who want to learn the mother tongue of their parents or grandparents, there are several options. We will focus on these throughout this article.
A Quick History of Japanese Learning in Australia
Many people may not realise that Japanese has been taught in Australia for over 100 years. It started in the 1880s when Japan sent workers to Australia to work in the pearling and sugarcane industries.
After World War II, until 1949, migration from Japan was banned but once these restrictions were relaxed and migration resumed, the study of Japanese became more popular over time as people realised the economic, tourism and trade benefits available. Students learning the language started to rise in the 60s, and peaked in the late 90s but has fallen off a little in the years since then, even though learning Japanese is still possible in a good number of primary and secondary schools throughout Australia.
Will My Local School Offer a Japanese Course — and What if They Don't?
When the new Australian Curriculum came out in 2012, languages in addition to English were included as compulsory learning but the implementation of lessons, and the grade level study would start at, were left up to individual states. In fact, most state governments even allowed the choice of language and year level to be determined by each school in consultation with the community.
Despite this choice, at the end of the day the language offered by a school was determined almost solely by teacher availability, and still is today. What this means is that living in a large city does not necessarily guarantee your preferred language course and some remote schools may offer languages not available in the more populated areas.
While it may be disappointing to discover your local schools do not offer Nihongo lessons, this does not mean you'll never be able to study Japanese. In Australia, there are many different options for reading, listening and speaking practice, not to mention the opportunity to learn to read and write hiragana, katakana and kanji characters.
Online tutorials, local community groups and events run by the Japan Foundation are great options and if you're still serious about learning Japanese at the end of compulsory education, a Japanese course at university is your best option.
Alternatively, you might like to explore learning Japanese with a private tutor.
Each state in Australia has its own branch of the Australia Japan Society. These groups, largely run by volunteers, are your best source of information about cultural events and classes available in your local area. From brushing up your grammar and vocabulary to learning the three scripts (hiragana, katakana and kanji), from participating in Japanese English conversation exchanges to attending free cultural events—if the Australia Japan Society doesn't have something on offer, they'll be able to help you find out who does.
Japanese Study in Primary School
The Australian Curriculum includes outcomes for Japanese from as early as Foundation level. Many primary schools start their language teaching journey in the Foundation years, and if you ask the teachers, most will tell you this age is the best time to learn.
The younger the learner, the more open they are to having a go, and the less fear they have of making mistakes. They pick up and retain new grammar and vocabulary quickly and are less shy about speaking and trying out new words.
If your child is able to study Japanese at their primary school, you can expect them to:
- become adept with basic greetings and simple sentences
- use singing and games for new words and grammar practice
- write their names in katakana
- understand some vocabulary written with hiragana characters
- recognise a handful of basic kanji
- become a miniature expert on different areas of Japanese culture
Many primary schools also employ native Japanese teacher-assistants to provide students with authentic listening and speaking practice. They will often be looking for short-term homestay opportunities, which is the perfect way to bring a small part of Japan into your home.
Secondary School Japanese Curriculums in Australia
Depending on the state you live in, learning a language is mandated for only one to two years in high school—that is, only for a portion of the time in Years 7 and 8. From Year 9 onwards, foreign language learning is optional, and recent trends have shown a decline in students taking up this option.
If your child's secondary school does offer Japanese, they will more than likely start their course from the beginning again—even if they have students who have studied Nihongo right through primary school. However, they move at a faster pace, so students who enjoy the language are rarely bored.
The Years 7 to 10 curriculum expects students to:
- read and write in hiragana, katakana and kanji
- understand increasingly complex texts
- participate in a range of speaking and listening activities
- move beyond basic grammar and vocabulary
- vary their level of communication according to the situation (for example, formal or informal)
- develop a deeper cultural knowledge
Senior Secondary Study
The Australian Curriculum does not cover foreign languages in Years 11 and 12, so the course of study for these students is determined at a state level. Although it can vary, Japanese study at a senior secondary level will often include a student-directed component as well as advanced speaking and reading skills for continuing learners. Beginning courses are also available.
Throughout all levels of schooling, students have the opportunity to be involved in a range of extra-curricular activities to broaden their cultural knowledge and provide encouragement to use their new words and grammar in real-life situations. School tours to Japan are not uncommon for students studying the language in high school, and some primary schools also have this option for their senior students.
Studying Japanese Outside of the School Setting
Of course, as mentioned previously, not everyone is lucky enough to be able to study the languages of their choice at school.
This doesn't mean you will miss out if you or your children are keen to learn—there are many alternative options available if you just know where to look.
Learning Japanese with a private tutor is one of the best ways to ensure you achieve your goals, whether you just want some basic phrases for travelling right through to preparing for a language proficiency test.
There are lots of people advertising tutoring services, both through tutor companies and freelance tutors. Make sure you make use of the Superprof platform to find the right Japanese tutor to suit your needs and remember, the first lesson is often free.
Language Schools and Community Groups
Check your state's Australia Japan Society website to locate community groups offering Japanese lessons, or formal language schools who cater for all levels.
Hosting and Exchange Opportunities
Organisations such as Shoji Australia are always looking for Australian families to host students from Japan for short and long-term stays. What better way to help someone with their English study while getting some Japanese practice yourself? Alternatively, your older child might like to become an exchange student and travel to Japan.
Perhaps you'd prefer to teach yourself? There are loads of free apps, online games, podcasts and websites available to cater for all needs. You can even use video games to learn Japanese.
Another free and fun way to get in some Japanese practice is to attend intercultural events and festivals.
People often ask if Japanese is difficult to learn. If you start young enough, are committed and interested, and access the right resources, you or your child are sure to be successful.
Issho ni nihongo o benkyō shimashou!