For those of us raising a child bilingual Japanese/English child, it can be difficult to find appropriate teaching materials, especially if you live outside of an area with a large Japanese population like California and New York. Fortunately, these are a few excellent distance learning (通信教育）programs designed for young learners in mind. Benesse’s “Child Challenge” (こどもちゃれんじ） program is one which I highly recommend, not only because it can be shipped to the US, but also because of the comprehensive materials included. (You can see my previous post on raising bilingual child here.)
This program has a series of programs, one for each year between age 1 and 6. The only one I have personal experience with is the first level (プチ, or “little”). My comments will be focused mainly that level, but I’m sure the quality of the program is same throughout.
This series features “Shimajiro”, a cute, lovable tiger boy, along with his friends and family. His name comes from the word for stripes (しま) plus “じろう”, a common (if not outdated) name for males which has the connotation of the second oldest boy.
The learning materials consist of the following:
- A well-designed educational picture book (絵本), delivered once a month. These have more interactivity than an average picture book, since the are doors to open and flaps to pull out. The featured image for this article contains a photo of the front cover of the first book. Each time there is also a bonus educational booklet included which is targeted for adults and touches on various issues you child might be facing at his or her age.
- A variety of educational toys (エデュトイ), many which work together interchangeably. For example, there is a set of duplo-type blocks, and a play cooking set. There is also the Matryoshka doll-inspired “Irocchi”, show in the picture at the bottom of this article. Their name means “color”, with the cutesy-sounding “cchi” ending. Remember tamagocchi? That is “egg” plus the same ending.
- A CD containing a 20-30 minute educational program, delivered every two months. At least half of the content is songs that involve simple dances, and my son really likes these. The end also has a preview of the upcoming toys, which is a blatant marketing attempt to get you to stay in the program. Because many of the past videos are available on YouTube (like this), I feel the CD has the least value of the learning materials.
- Though they are not included in the package, there are various educational apps on the apple app store (and possible others) which feature Shimajiro. Some of them are free.
There are a variety of themes, including shapes, food, colors, using the bathroom, and manners. For example, the first book in the “puchi” set is titled “かたちだいすき号” which translates to ” ‘I love shapes’ edition”. You can see here that words which would normally be written in kanji (like 大好き）are done with hiragana, which makes it easier for children to understand.
The price varies depending on what country you get it shipped to, but can easily reach $600 and above. This is the product’s weakest point, since one could argue that you could buy many more books and toys for the same price. Furthermore, the same program is available within Japan for under half the price. From what I have heard this cost is mostly shipping and the various fees (inspection, etc.) incurred. For this reason there are those who find someone in Japan to buy the books and hold them for some time, after which they send them in bulk to America (or wherever they are living). This can definitely save money but has the disadvantage that there is no new set of materials delivered each month.
Having said that, when you look at this as a comprehensive program I feel it is worth the money for those who do not have easy access to Japanese books. My 2 year old son has used all the materials over and over again so we’ve definitely got our moneys worth. A program like this also makes it easier for the parents since you don’t have to continually search for books and toys to buy every few weeks. For those who are on the fence about taking the plunge to sign up, you might want to know this program has been around for over 20 years, so you can really expect excellent quality in every aspect.
I highly recommend this program for those raising a child bilingually Japanese. Because the materials are targeted at a young audience and made very easy to understand, I think they could also be very useful to an adult learning Japanese as a second language. For those with severals years experience studying Japanese there won’t be too much to learn, but for the rest I’m sure these will be quite a learning experience. There is even some expressions related to daily life that aren’t likely to appear in manga or TV dramas, such as “手と手をぎゅっと！”. I’ll let you guess what that one means (:
Whenever I decide to study a new language, I’ll probably try and find a similar course since it gives a fresh point of view for new language learners. I think there is also a Chinese version of Shimajiro, and possibly one for other languages as well.
I’ll end this post with a brief excerpt from the intro song: