The place of Japanese culture and language in Australia and in the world
Japanese is the official language of Japan, Australia’s northern neighbour in the Asia region. It is also widely used by communities of speakers in Hawaii, Peru and Brazil, and learnt as an additional language by large numbers of students in the Republic of Korea, China, Indonesia and Australia.
Australia has a significant number of Japanese national residents, particularly in the major cities on the eastern seaboard. Japanese culture influences many areas of contemporary Australian society, including the arts, design, technology, fashion, popular culture and cuisine. Japan has been a close strategic and economic partner of Australia’s for more than 50 years, and there is ongoing exchange between the two countries in the areas of education, trade, diplomacy and tourism. Japan is an important nation within Asia and a significant contributor to economic, political and diplomatic relations in the region.
The place of the Japanese language in Australian education
Japanese has been taught in Australia for more than 100 years and is widely taught as a second language in Australian schools. The 1960s saw significant growth in the learning of Japanese, with the establishment of many university programs that produced graduate language teachers who worked alongside native-speaking teachers to establish school-based programs. Increased trade and tourism activity between Japan and Australia in the following decades strengthened interest in Japanese-language learning, and government funding such as the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools (NALSAS) Strategy (1994-2002) and the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP, 2008-12) contributed to growth and further development in both the primary and secondary sectors. The strong relationship between Australia and Japan has led to many collaborative projects in education and intercultural exchange. The Japanese government and private foundations support the teaching and learning of Japanese in Australia through funding professional learning and resource development centres and through involvement in educational exchanges.
The near-parallel time zones and the geographical proximity of Japan to Australia facilitate access, interaction and communication between the two countries. Student exchanges, community engagement such as sister-school and city relationships, and connections developed through other curriculum areas such as art, design and literature provide opportunities for Australian learners of Japanese to interact with Japanese people and to engage in cultural experience. Increasing numbers of students benefit from exchanges and in-country experience. Technology provides many additional opportunities for interaction and exchange with Japanese-speaking people and cultures.
The nature of Japanese language learning
Japanese is the language used by the Japanese for education, business and media communication. Some dialect variations are used in spoken interactions in different regions of the country.
Japanese is a phonetic language. Pronunciation is predictable, and new words can be pronounced easily upon mastery of hiragana characters.
Japanese uses three scripts for writing: hiragana, the basic phonetic script representing the sounds of Japanese; katakana, the companion phonetic script that is largely used for loan words; and kanji, Chinese characters that represent meaning rather than sound (ideographs). The three scripts are used interdependently. Hiragana is typically the first script learnt, with katakana and kanji first introduced in context then taught systematically, contributing to script knowledge and competence. The many loan words from other languages expressed through katakana reflect the impact of globalisation, technology and popular culture on Japanese language and culture.
Japanese grammar is relatively uniform, with few irregularities, no grammatical gender, and predictable and systematic conjugation of adjectives and verb tenses. There are some differences between Japanese and English elements and patterns, such as the Japanese word order of subject–object–verb. This order forms the basis of sentences that can then be enhanced by the addition of details usually placed before the main items. Pronouns can be omitted and it is not always necessary to articulate the subject of a sentence. Counting and numbering in Japanese involve using classifiers that reflect the nature of the item. Particles are used to mark sentence elements and to indicate the nature of verbs.
An element of the language that may be unfamiliar to some Australian learners is the system of plain and polite forms, which reflect hierarchical relations, social and business-related positioning and issues of respect and status. Plain and polite forms are represented differently in both spoken and written language. Conversational Japanese can be less formal than written Japanese, using shortened sentences, abbreviated plain forms and some omitted particles.
Another feature of Japanese culture reflected in language use is the importance accorded to expressing humility and maintaining harmony. Refusing or deflecting praise of self or family, deferential behaviour and avoidance of direct disagreement or refusal are common characteristics of communicative interactions.
A key aspect of the curriculum involves understanding the cultural dimension that shapes and is shaped by Japanese language. The curriculum is designed with an intercultural language learning orientation to enable students to participate meaningfully in intercultural experiences, to develop new ways of seeing and being in the world, and to understand more about themselves in the process.
The diversity of learners of Japanese
While learners of Japanese in Australian schools vary in terms of language backgrounds, cultural experience and prior learning experience, they are predominantly second language learners. Classes may include students with a background in Japanese or in a script-based Asian language. Some students will have had exposure to Japanese language and culture through social interactions, travel or exchange experiences.
The Australian Curriculum: Languages – Japanese is pitched for the majority of the cohort of learners of Japanese for whom Japanese is an additional language (referred to in the Australian Curriculum as second language learners). The curriculum has been developed according to two main learning sequences for these learners, Foundation to Year 10 Sequence and Years 7 to 10 (Year 7 Entry) Sequence.
Teachers will use the curriculum to cater for the range of different learner backgrounds described above by making appropriate adjustments to personalise learning experiences for these students.