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Exploring Japanese Culture

First-grade students at Great Falls Elementary are part of immersion program

First grade is usually a time to perfect printing your name, to begin to learn how to add and subtract, and to bring home a wide array of finger-paint masterpieces for the refrigerator at home.

Eighteen first-grade students presented a short program Friday afternoon, showcasing the Japanese skills they’ve learned in the past three months through the Japanese Immersion Program at Great Falls Elementary.

A few hours after a group of third-graders presented a play for their families and classmates, the first-graders marched on-stage in the cafeteria to perform a short play, “Here Comes Monkey,” and six songs entirely in Japanese, for their families.

Their teacher, whose name is Mamiya Sahara-Worland but who goes by “Sahara Sensei” with the children, refuses to speak English in front of her students, to make it easier for them to learn such a complex language.

“Half of their day — math, science and health classes — are taught entirely in Japanese, and the other half of the day, the students return to their English-speaking teacher for language arts, reading and social studies,” said Diane Hara, a parent in the school.

There are three schools that participate in the Japanese Immersion Program: Great Falls Elementary School, Floris Elementary School and Fox Mill Elementary School, Hara said. The children have the opportunity to join the program when they enter first grade and remain in the program through sixth grade, when a trip to a sister-school in Japan for a two-week period is offered, she said.

“The students absorb everything like sponges,” Sahara said. “Their pronunciation is excellent. If you close your eyes, you couldn’t tell if these were Japanese students or American students, it’s that good.”

The later in life a person starts to learn a foreign language, the more obstacles he has to overcome, Sahara said. “Their tongue is already formed, and it’s harder to learn and pronounce some sounds. Plus it actually helps a child learn a subject, like science, when they learn in a foreign language because they learn the concept and the language at the same time.”

It also helps the students learn to accept people of different cultures, languages and backgrounds, she said. “They’re not afraid to meet people from different places. Their acceptance is unbelievable.”

Great Falls Elementary School will be holding a Parents Information Night in January for parents of kindergarten students who may be interested in enrolling in the program, Hara said. Only a select number of students are allowed to participate each year.