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Learning Japanese Through Play

The students prepare for their trip to the Japanese supermarket.

When I signed up for Japanese in high school, I didn’t know what to expect. Of course we started with basic vocabulary and worked our way through katakana, hiragana and a bit of kanji in an attempt to master the various alphabets.  But my favorite part of our class was the cultural aspect.  I remember being shocked by the crazy costumes when my sensei showed us “Kohaku Utagassen” (New Year’s Eve Music Show).  We wrote nengajou (New Year’s cards) and chased away devils and asked for good luck with mamemaki (bean throwing) on the Setsubun holiday.

When you are a child, the opportunity to learn Japanese and experience the culture is invaluable.  Young minds are highly malleable, and I would not be the person I am today if it wasn’t for my sensei’s revolutionary classroom style.  It was the cultural aspects of Japan, unusual to me at the time, which really intrigued me and made me want to stick with Japanese.  I flashed back to this time during a trip to the Scarsdale-based non-profit International Lifelong Education (I.L.E.), formerly known as the Japan America Learning Center.  Along with a potpourri of other classes, Japanese is offered at this facility, and its cozy atmosphere and stellar Japanese staff make it ideal for those looking to study this language.

Completing the scavenger hunt while using Japanese.

Two such students were participating in a spring camp taking place the week I visited. 10-year old Michael and 8-year old Ken both take their own one-on-one private Japanese lessons every Saturday, so this special event was a great chance to interact with fellow students of Japanese as well as native speakers who had come to work on their English.  Aside from activities such as music, gym and candle-making, there was something special planned for them: a field trip to a local Japanese supermarket so they could practice their Japanese.

Marking off the items found one by one.

While at the store, they had to carry a worksheet with them and accomplish tasks like asking where certain items such as soy sauce, “Pocky” and miso were located and how much they cost.  Michael and Ken received $5 each of spending money, and were eager to show off their Japanese skills.  They were able to navigate Fuji Mart’s aisles and find all of the items, as well as some treats for themselves! At lunchtime Michael dug into his new purchases right away, enjoying his first onigiri (rice ball) and washing it down with the carbonated drink ramune.  For dessert he opened up his package of orange Hi-chew and shared them with the group.

I took this opportunity to ask Michael and Ken why they want to study Japanese.  Michael shared, “I saw calligraphy hanging in my Japanese friend’s house and I wanted to learn more about Japan, so I started taking classes here six months ago.  I have heiwa (peace) that I wrote in hiragana hanging in my room, and someday I want to write it in kanji.”  As for Ken, his mother is Japanese so his interest in the language was natural.  He started classes about six months ago, and he’s already hooked.  “I like coming to the center because we play games, listen to music and have fun while learning Japanese.”

Learning Japanese through song with native Japanese students.

Watching Michael and Ken and their enthusiasm brought me back to my days first studying Japanese.  I.L.E. has the same magic that I had in my high school class that made it fun to learn a language.  There is something special about having the chance to learn Japanese when you are young, and as I.L.E’s name indicates, they are hoping to have this interest stay with children for the long-term.  With their winning formula, students are sure to grow into lifelong language learners.

———— Reported by Stacy Smith

International Lifelong Education (I.L.E.)
81 Montgomery Ave., 2nd Fl., Scarsdale, NY 10583
TEL: 914-723-7600
*I.L.E. will offer Summer Camp programs. For details, go to their website.