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Spanish in Japan! I never thought that I would be using Spanish while working in Japan, but Spanish was more common than I ever imagined it to be. My first job out of college was teaching at a Japanese high school. Having worked so hard to learn Spanish, I was determined to keep my language skills while teaching English and studying Japanese. I had feared that while in Japan my fluency in Spanish would diminish, but every now and then, I would hear Spanish in Tokyo. My job took me to the town of Kumagaya, about an hour from Tokyo on regular train or a half hour on the shinkansen or bullet train. Much to my surprise, I met many people whose first language was Spanish when I started to attend the small church in my town. Although these Spanish speakers looked Japanese, they were actually from Peru. These individuals were known as Japanese Peruvians, and it is estimated that they comprise the second largest ethnic Japanese population in Latin America. During the 1990s, the Japanese government modified its immigration laws, giving foreigners of Japanese descent the opportunity to return to Japan for work. My fear of losing my Spanish fluency was gone, as I quickly found that I had many Spanish-speaking friends and even students in the high school where I taught.

The transition to school in Japan for any immigrant is challenging, but it was especially so for my students from Peru because of the vastly different and complex writing system used in Japan. My own struggles to learn Japanese were tough, and I found the memorization of the thousands of different characters difficult and tedious. One day, I discovered my Peruvian students playing karuta, which is a card game popular among children in Japan. They were laughing and having fun as they played, and while observing them, I realized that they were using this game to study and learn their kanji, the complex characters that make up the Japanese written language. I loved that the students had found a way to make their own learning fun. These same students taught me how to play karuta, a game that I started to use as an activity in the classes that I taught. Upon return to the United States, I continued to use karuta with my American students learning Spanish.

The object of the karuta game is to be the first player to determine which card out of an array of cards is being called and then to grab the card before it is grabbed by an opponent. The game can be played in groups of two to three children with the cards spread out between them. I would call out a word, and the players would try to be the first to find the card among the many others. For example, I once used flashcards with pictures of different animals on them. My son and his friend would sit opposite each other with about fifteen cards between them. I would call out “vaca” and the first to get the card with the picture of the cow on it from amongst the other cards would keep it. The winner would be the child with the most cards once all of the cards had been retrieved. The kids would laugh and have so much fun while playing. The game is simple enough that it can be played by children as young as two, but it is also fun, and I have found that even my high school students enjoyed playing it. Any type of information that can be represented in card form can be used including shapes, colors, small pictures, and Spanish words.

When my son is a bit older, I plan to use this game to teach sight word. Reading is Fundamental (RIF) defines a sight word as “a word that is immediately recognized as a whole and does not require word analysis for identification.” One of the first steps in teaching a child to read is to familiarize them with sight words. Learning sight words is essential for a child to achieve fluency in their reading, and the comprehension of the written text will increase as well. The website Spanish Pronto provides a comprehensive list of 175 most commonly used Spanish words. Playing karuta is a great way to help your child or students learn these words. The tedious job of memorizing the vocabulary can be turned into a fun and educational game.

No matter what words or concepts you use while playing karuta, your child is guaranteed to have fun. Games are a great way to introduce new vocabulary or to just reinforce previously learned ideas and concepts. The lesson that my Japanese Peruvian students taught me is that learning can and should be fun.

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