Notre Dame Offers Innovative Japanese Extensive Reading Language Course

Author: Eleanor Hughes

I never imagined myself sitting at the CSLC on my last regular week of classes as an undergraduate, drawing pictures of a little Japanese girl wearing red shoes, sharpening color-pencil after color-pencil, and telling her story through a classical Japanese nursery rhyme for my Japanese Extensive Reading class.

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The Extensive Reading course, taught by Professor Noriko Hanabusa, emphasizes a innovative method of developing linguistic competence in Japanese. It is a language course in which students read widely books of their choice, at their own pace. Each book has a sticker placed on it, indicating what level of difficulty in Japanese is incorporated into the book.  At the beginning of class, Professor Hanabusa selects a few students to discuss about what they are reading and a couple Japanese words that they found intriguing. Following the oral reports and or some brief announcements made by Professor Hanabusa, students then commence their independent reading.  The use of Japanese-English dictionaries were discouraged as its use would hinder the class philosophy: pleasure-reading.  Additionally, if students found themselves entrapped in a book too difficult to comprehend or wished to read a different work closer to their own interests, they were more than welcome to read another work. During the class, Professor Hanabusa actively assisted and advised students.

For much of the semester, I read a Japanese manga called “はだしのゲン” (“Barefoot Gen”), which is about a young boy named Gen whose family lived in Hiroshima when the first Atomic Bomb detonated at 8:15 A.M. on August 6, 1945. Processing Gen’s reality of confronting impoverishment and harsh criticism for his father’s sentiments against the war, I came to a deeper understanding not only of the slang utilized by the Hiroshima population as embodied by Gen and his family but how their language is also a deep reflection of Japan in the 1940s. I shared these reflections and noted other Japanese vocabulary that intrigued me in our weekly evaluations of the particular book we were reading during class.

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In essence, Japanese Extensive Reading classes are rare among four-year accredited universities. Moreover, what makes the class unique is that at the end of the semester, students created a final project which provided an opportunity to showcase their creativity in addition to their Japanese language skills. Professor Hanabusa was not only impressed with the time they spent on their projects but she “never expected this to happen but everybody came up with such different ideas so I now realize how different each student is.”

All Extensive Reading students share their passion in Japanese, but their passion has been expressed differently. Final projects from the Beginner Extensive Reading included: illustrated pictures and Japanese children’s books while integrating Greek mythology, a board-game of the youth-oriented Shibuya district in which players try to find Hachiko, and even a video-game!

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On the other hand, students from the Advanced Japanese classes focused on book reports and utilizing music in their projects such as Emily Campagna, a CSLC Japanese Peer-Tutor, who has taken the Extensive Reading course since its inception in Fall 2014.  For her final project, she composed a piece, informed by her music theory class that leant itself to a combination of Japanese and music. Moreover, in her words, “the number of tones in each phrase matched with the structure of a haiku, so [she] thought it’d be interesting to write a piece for voice and piano that used a famous haiku as lyrics.” In her words, she considers the course to be “a natural way to absorb a new language” because it does not require the use of textbooks, and the class structure is not as formal as an ordinary Japanese language class.

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 Extensive Reading indeed elevates a student’s understanding of the Japanese language but for me personally, the class takes on a role beyond the walls of a small classroom inside the Hesburgh library. Reading “Barefoot Gen” for this class inspired me to visit Hiroshima, a place of rich culture, a place of unparalleled resilience, and a place of one of the most unforgettable World Heritage sites: the Atomic Dome and the Peace Memorial Park. I was in great awe to witness hundreds of Japanese elementary children singing a song called 青い空 (Blue Skies) at the Peace Memorial Park and then placing their thousand cranes that they folded into one of several glass displays.

While Professor Hanabusa is a pioneer of the Extensive Reading Program at Notre Dame, she also emphasizes that she “cannot do this on her own because she has been working closely with the East Asian librarian, Hye-Jin Juhn, because she helped us a lot to buy books and it’s a good collaboration with the library, then of course, the CSLC.”

I want to personally thank Professor Hanabusa for giving me the chance to teach my classmates about part of Japanese culture prior to the Great War through making a Japanese  kamishibai (paper play), and then singing one of the nursery rhymes that I listened to as a child with my mom called 赤い靴 (The Red Shoes).