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Tuesday, April 3, 2001

Nursery provides multilingual learning


By ASAKO MURAKAMI
Staff writer

KOBE -- For 20-month-old Andrei Hirata, the nursery school was hell.

Andrei's father, Japanese-Brazilian Alexandre Seiji Hirata, and mother enrolled their Portuguese-speaking son in a Japanese nursery school about a year ago, only to withdraw him within a month.

Andrei Masao Isa Hirata plays with his Bolivian friend at a multicultural child-care center in Kobe's Higashinada Ward.

"Andrei was in tears many times, although he made some friends (at the former nursery), and he could not sleep well at night due to nightmares," Hirata said.

The recent opening of a child-care center with Portuguese-speaking staff, therefore, came as a godsend to the couple.

"He seems to be very happy here," Hirata said, watching his son running around a room at the center, which opened on March 26 in Higashi Nada Ward.

The multicultural child care center, run by the nonprofit organization Center for Multicultural Information & Assistance, Hyogo, welcomes children of various nationalities and can deal with at least six languages, including Portuguese, Spanish and English. "As we have a wide network of volunteers who can understand many languages, we can manage any language; although the main language here is Japanese," said Mayumi Takeda, chief of CMIA's child-care center project.

The center's main feature, however, is the environment it provides for children to learn to understand and respect each other's differences regardless of nationality, language and culture.

To realize that goal, the center plans to introduce the languages of the children enrollees in teaching materials such as books and games. It also plans to offer multilingual support for parents, including counseling, medical services and parenting classes, according to Takeda.

The child-care center project is one of the latest activities set up by CMIA, Hyogo, which originally started its volunteer work soon after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, to provide foreign residents with necessary information and advice in 15 languages.

Since October 1995, CMIA has been providing foreign residents with such services as telephone counseling and medical assistance, while working to meet the center's aim of helping to create a multicultural society where differences in nationality, language, culture and sex are recognized and respected.

It was through such activities that the center was prompted to open a multicultural child-care center.

"We've heard many foreign residents saying they cannot apply for a nursery school due to language and cultural barriers," Takeda said.

"Besides, Japanese nursery schools often do not allow children to be different from others."

Before launching their project, Takeda and others visited other child-care centers and nurseries around the country that accept non-Japanese children.

Takeda said that she was impressed and encouraged by a nursery school in Osaka's Nishinari Ward where children from different cultures play happily together. The nursery also encourages mothers to get to know each other through a cookery class run by Filipino mothers.

"We also want to encourage exchanges among parents with different cultures here," Takeda said.

Fees at the center, which depend on the child's age and family income, range from 30,000 yen to 50,000 yen per month. The center accepts children aged between 6 months and preschool age and is open from Monday to Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Extended hours till 7:30 p.m. are available for an additional fee. The center also offers an after-school program for children from Monday to Saturday.

"We think it is important to create an environment where people understand and respect each others' differences from an early age, and the center provides a good opportunity to that end," Takeda said. "Besides, I am happy just to see the children of different nationalities playing together."



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