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There’s always a silver lining to a cloud. Clichés unintended, but the cloud we’re talking about—again—is COVID. Over the past year and more, the pandemic has thrown open some fundamental concerns and uncertainties in pretty much every sphere of life. In the context of the education sector, this uncertainty has created an urgent need for universities to develop better teacher networks, as teaching and learning has had to rapidly shift to online and hybrid modes of delivery, requiring the development of new materials and teaching methods.
Concerned about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Japanese language learning—particularly on advanced language programs, when humanities are under pressure to justify their existence, and many Australian universities are finding it difficult to maintain their advanced Japanese language programs—the Japanese Studies Association of Australia (JSAA) and the Japan Foundation Sydney sensed this shrouding uncertainty and a growing need to do something to change the status quo.
And thus, was born the Advanced Japanese Language Network Project.
The project had two main goals: first, to establish a community of teachers to share and collaborate, through the establishment of the Advanced Japanese Language Network: 上級日本語Network. The second goal was to collect data through both online surveys and interviews to better understand the current state of advanced Japanese language programs at the university level in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. The aim of the data review was to investigate what teaching materials, learning activities and assessments were being used in advanced Japanese language classes at universities in the three countries, and to explore the impact of COVID-19 on the delivery of advanced Japanese language classes online in 2020. A total of 76 teachers responded to the online survey from 25 institutions, and 38 took part in follow-up interviews.
In line with the vision and objectives of the network, the community website, housed under the umbrella of the JSAA site, has three components:
Led by Dr. Carol Hayes (ANU) and Dr. Ikuko Nakane (University of Melbourne), the project has demonstrated some real strengths in the offerings across the sector. However, it has also highlighted a number of challenges and the need for advocacy in the language learning and teaching space.
The Network project report, collating the online survey and interview data, includes a number of findings, one centred on the definition of, and perception around, the term ‘advanced’, as well as on the activities, themes and resources of study content. The project’s English report can be accessed by from the project page.
With respect to ‘advanced’ and what it means, the network found a difference between institutional and teacher definitions, with a tension developing with institutions requiring proficiency benchmarks to be shared across all languages—with the result that if French 6 is classified as advanced, then Japanese 6 must also be termed advanced. This is at odds with teacher definitions, which regard advanced students as ‘independent proactive users’ or ‘critical users’ of Japanese.
In terms of activities, themes and resources, exposing students to as much ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ Japanese as possible is of critical importance, with emphasis on an understanding of the social and cultural context. As a result, few of the advanced courses surveyed are using textbook materials. Project work is favoured over exams and tests, with the best results when it is adapted to the interests of the cohort. There are two types of course patterns in the advanced Japanese space in the sector: those that focus on social issues in Japan and the world, and those that are centred on specific skills in the fields of business, research, interpretation, or translation, for example.
The need of the hour…
The first two network events have proven a real success, with 32 participants in the first gathering, and 140 in the Global Network of Japanese Language Education event presented by the project team. Clearly there is a desire for more networking, and online connectivity is making this even easier. The varied members of the network demonstrate a passion and commitment that is shared across the sector, by teachers who are working hard to mentor their students as independent, proactive and critical users of the Japanese language—not just in the university classroom space, but outside in their ‘real’ lives and hopefully beyond into their fields of employment.
That said, the Network’s discussions point to a set of foundational concerns associated with Japanese language education presently. These include reduced teaching weeks and hours or reduced courses or the discontinuation of programs, student attrition, and associated concerns with the new generation of academics. There is an urgent need for advocacy, and language teaching—and higher education specifically—is currently in the throes of a crisis. We hope that the Network will form a nexus for advocacy that challenges monolingual/monocultural perspectives worryingly on the rise in contemporary Australia, and we encourage all Japanese tertiary language teachers to engage in this debate.