TOHOKY UNIVERSITY Intercultural Co-learning Class 国際共修クラス


The Design and Future of ICL

Interviewee: Associate Professor Rumi Watanabe
Interviewer: Junna Minato (Fourth-year undergraduate at the School of Arts and Letters, an ICL supporter)
Translators: Mio Kobayashi (ICL administrative staff), Walt Wyman


There are nearly 70 ICL courses available annually here at Tohoku University.
We interviewed Prof. Rumi Watanabe who runs one entitled “Intercultural Understanding” to understand more about how she designs and runs the course, and her views for ICL in the future.


What is “Intercultural Understanding”?


Junna Minato (abbrev. Minato): Firstly, may I ask you what the theme and the aim of your course are?

Prof. Rumi Watanabe (abbrev. Prof. Watanabe): Students in this course are from various cultural backgrounds. Our aim is that through discussions on some topics and collaborative works they end up with deeper understanding of the culture and society they came from. You could say that it means the understanding of new cultures and the discovery of your own. It is also where you practice how to make yourself understood properly. I hope to provide them with opportunities to improve their ability to construct and give presentations, as most of them are first years and not used to them.

Minato: It sounds like your classes encourage students to understand each other’s backgrounds as well as their own. I gathered that teaching them how to express themselves and listen to others are also aims of the course.

Prof. Watanabe: Exactly. I want them to learn a lot systematically…


Who are the students in the course?


Minato: I read that there were 11 students participating this year, with 3 from China and 8 home students. Because of the pandemic, I take it that the number is much less than usual. How many students were registered before the pandemic and how many of them were international students?

Prof. Watanabe: There were 30 students last year. The capacity was 25, but I accepted them all. Looking back, it was a lot. 40% of them were international students. They were from Italy, the Netherlands, Taiwan, Korea and so on. Some of them were exchange students and researchers and others were self-funded students.


Stimulate New Discoveries


Minato: What are you mindful of when you design and conduct a course?

Prof. Watanabe: I am always mindful of the level of Japanese used in the class, so that no international student is left behind. One of the challenging aspects of running an ICL course is that you don’t know where the international students are from until the beginning of the term. Last year we set the requirement low and accepted students with Level 4 Japanese, which meant that I needed to add furigana (phonetic readings) in all the study materials. The language requirement this year, however, is higher at level 6 Japanese. Besides, all the international students registered in my course are Chinese and they have no difficulty understanding kanji (Chinese characters). Hence, no furigana was necessary this year. Another thing I had in mind when I planned the course this year, though, was adopting to this new combination of online and face-to-face classes. I made sure that I uploaded materials two or three days before the class, with the help of various online tools, so the students could take time to prepare for the class on their own. By sending the materials beforehand, I can ensure that the students have enough time to look up Japanese words they don’t know and research the theme of the class. Also, if you recall, we set some ground rules after a couple of classes together, didn’t we?

Minato: Yes, I remember that we did.

Prof. Watanabe: It is not good enough to force-feed them with predetermined rules. It is important that the students think and come up with their own rules in the course. This is related to what I am teaching right now about “Yasashii Nihongo (Easy Japanese)” and universal designs.


Making Small Changes to the Course


Minato: What do you find challenging when you are conducting the course?

Prof. Watanabe: Hmm, let me think…. I’ve been doing this same course for four years now. I revise the syllabus every year and have made huge changes this year… The problem is that the themes of ICL courses are all alike, “Communication” and “Intercultural Understanding” and so on. Most of the international students are around third-year students, whereas homes students are mainly first years. As a result, I found that their language proficiency does not matter as much as their experience and basic academic competency. In the same way, to some international students, non-verbal communication is nothing new or notable. This year, therefore, I decided to set the main theme as “Coexistence”. I am meaning to fix the contents of the course once I get the list of registered students.

Minato: Do you mean that you are making small changes to the contents of the course depending on the number of international students and where they are from?
Prof. Watanabe: Yes, that’s correct. Of course, I have a structure prepared beforehand, but I make sure that it is highly adaptable to different situations. For example, when I found out that all the international students were Chinese this year, I added a new activity where the students compare Japanese and Chinese expressions.


Incredible Growth Rate among ICL Students


Minato: What do you find fulfilling about teaching this course?

Prof. Watanabe: Witnessing students change and grow is fulfilling for me, I guess.

Minato: Yeah, I bet. As an ICL supporter, I also noticed the change in students, especially the first years.

Prof. Watanabe: Yes, I noticed it too. They are usually rather shy to begin with. As soon as I facilitate their discussion, however, they immediately start to perform well. Perhaps because we have online discussions lately, they seem to be more relaxed about them. As a result, they raise their hands and ask questions all the time now. It is nice to see them develop like this, you know?

Minato: Yeah, I totally understand. It must be nice to see the change in their expression too.

Prof. Watanabe: You’re right. I understand that it isn’t easy for international students to take classes in Japanese, but they are determined NOT to be lazy and use English. They even ask home students to talk to them in Japanese during the group activities. There are in fact some Japanese classes for international students at Tohoku, but Japanese students don’t take them. Besides, they are mostly lecture-style, not interactive seminars. I guess that’s why they expect Japanese ICL classes to provide them with opportunities to talk to Japanese students. I find that those who take our ICL classes tend to improve their Japanese proficiency dramatically during the course.

Minato: ICL courses seem to be well sought-after opportunities for both international and home students to mingle.


ICL as an Open Gateway to the Future

Minato: What do you expect from the home students who are interested in your course, and what do you recommend they do?

Prof. Watanabe: I’d like to urge them to take ICL classes in English. My understanding of Japanese ICL classes is that it is where the international students work hard, whereas Japanese students are in a privileged, laid-back position. I hope that by taking some classes in English, they understand the challenges the international students are facing, change their attitude in ICL classes, and improve their interaction with the international students. I also find it interesting that Japanese students don’t know about Japanese as a language as much as they think they do. It would be beneficial for them to see Japanese as a foreign language through interaction with the international students. I hope that this course will be a steppingstone especially for the first years to try being a tutor or volunteer for international students, allowing them to earn new skills that will stay with them in their senior years at university or even beyond.

Minato: I saw a couple of active students like that. ICL courses inspired them to be more involved in studying foreign languages and intercultural interactions, resulting in them moving forward to the next stage, making friends along the way.

span style=”color: #1dcca6;”>Prof. Watanabe: That is an ideal situation. Though, to be honest, I want to know more about how I could improve my course. My students are so nice that they only give me good feedback. 😊

Minato: I understand where you are coming from. I would like to know that if I were you. Perhaps if I set up an opportunity for students to chat with ICL Supporters, who are all students like me, they would feel more inclined to speak their mind. I guess it is important as a Supporter to mediate between the teachers and the students, so students’ opinions get reflected in the class whilst building rapport in the process.


The Future of ICL

Minato: If there are plans for the future of ICL, could you share them with us?

Prof. Watanabe: Most of the ICL courses these days are focused too much on language and communication. According to the international students in my course, they want classes with more specialised contents. ICL courses need to deal with broader themes in the future, I think. I understand that it can be limited to the expertise of the teacher, and I have also been teaching mostly about verbal and non-verbal communication, but I am teaching something new this year, “multicultural coexistence.” It is not merely about being foreigners, but also about the disabled and elderly, so naturally I will have to talk about universal design as well. It is important to be aware of the issues in the local community and how to solve them as well as how to live alongside foreigners. I am considering discussing poverty too. It would be great if I could conduct a course that digs deep into the core of these issues, whilst being accessible to the international students.

Minato: I understand that there are a lot of classes that focus on the outside world, but when I come to think of it there is diversity within our community too. As you have mentioned earlier, there are elderly and disabled people. Even if you hold the same nationality with someone, it doesn’t mean that you share the same background. I find the idea quite refreshing. It could be even more interesting if you can collaborate with other faculties.

Prof.Watanabe: Yes, it could be.

Minato: I am excited for the future of ICL already. Thank you so much for taking time for us today.