How Japan is Tackling Language Learning for Foreigners

The Japanese government has made considerable efforts in the past year to attract foreign workers, most notably with a visa program that went into effect this past April. The goal is to bring in 345,000 foreign-born workers in 14 different sectors over the next 5 years. Concerns over a work force that is shrinking as workers age-out and families are having fewer children have inspired efforts to fill in the gaps with professionals trained abroad. To qualify for this new visa, applicants need to pass both a language test and a skills test. However, immigrant employees need not worry about language skills once they reach the country. The government and businesses in Japan are finding innovative ways to ensure that their language needs are met.

On June 20, Japan’s Upper House Committee on Education and Science passed a bill aimed at Japanese language-learning for foreign nationals working in Japan. The unanimously approved bill provides that substantial efforts will be made to cultivate Japanese language education through local government and business initiatives. Local governments are to implement language-learning measures for foreign-born workers specifically, as well as students. Businesses, which historically have been the main providers of language-learning for their workforce, now have additional support in providing such training through the central government’s fiscal measures. In-person learners will benefit from highly-trained Japanese language teachers with new salary raises, while those who are unable to complete such training will benefit from web-based teaching.

Local governments will be building upon existing innovative and potentially life-saving ways to expand language services to foreign nationals. For foreign patients with medical emergencies, the Fukuoka Prefecture provides round-the-clock interpretation by phone in 17 languages, including Tagalog and Khmer, while the Hiroshima Prefecture provides disaster, child care and medical services advice through a website in seven languages.

Such services are critical for English speakers, for whom Japanese is one of the harder languages to learn, requiring an average 88 weeks, or 2,200 class hours, to reach speaking and reading proficiency and mastery of special characters. Addressing language barriers at a young age is crucial as well. Language education for the children of foreign workers is provided for in the new bill. Data from a 2016 Education Ministry revealed almost 44 thousand elementary to high school students of both foreign and Japanese nationality, needed extra Japanese language education to adequately converse at their grade level and take part in educational activities. The bill is a positive step toward ensuring that not only foreign-born workers in Japan are receiving adequate language training but their children are as well, fostering growth and smoother integration into the life and culture of Japan.

Additionally, multilanguage translation tools provided by the government as well as businesses tending to the needs of foreigners are on the rise in Japan. Those who have not yet mastered Japanese, or who need quick information, will surely benefit from Tokyo’s new 24-hour multilingual call center, which provides translation services in English, Chinese and Korean. Questions about public transportation, finding out about tourist events, or even translating a brochure are just some of the round-the-clock translation services provided through this call center, free of tolls and service fees. On the tech side, VoiceBiz is a popular new app developed by Toppan Printing Co. which provides audio translation for 30 languages, and aims to be used in 600 local governments and 7,000 schools across the country. Demand for such tools is understandably high, with sectors such as transportation, agriculture and elderly care hoping to integrate such solutions as the foreign workforce increases.

Of course, language proficiency is just one of the many challenges to overcome when integrating into a new country, and with the influx of new foreign workers coming to Japan, governments and businesses are ramping up efforts in services that help the foreign workforce get comfortable. Services are being provided like the used-car business for foreign workers from Sojitz that uses fintech to assess creditworthiness regardless of whether the customer has credit history in Japan, while those with dietary restrictions can use NTT Docomo’s image recognition app to snap a photo of a product to determine if the food is appropriate to their restrictions. Ultimately, language barriers may arise, but Tokyo-based housing service provider AtHearth, which caters mostly to foreigners, uses an English-Japanese chatbot, and will soon be adding Chinese, Korean, French, Indonesian and Vietnamese. Similar businesses are likely to follow suit as the foreign workforce and its accompanying needs increases.

The Japanese workforce is sure to rapidly expand in the coming years with an influx of skilled workers from around the world, addressing a critical labor shortage with a forward-looking law. With this comes the need to equip foreign workers with support in a variety of areas including Japanese language learning. Fortunately, the Japanese government and businesses are already tending to these needs with enthusiasm and care for those without the necessary language skills to obtain them in order to thrive in new jobs throughout Japan.

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