Sunday, December 18, 2005

It Is Never Too Soon For A Child To Learn

When it comes to learning your ABCs, it is never too soon.

Mothers are starting to expose their babies to English soon after birth. The only caveat is that they ensure that Japanese language skills come first, educators advise.

A survey this year by Benesse Corp., which owns the Berlitz Japan chain of language schools among other lifestyle service companies, found 14.2 percent of households with preschoolers are sending their kids to English lessons--a jump from 5 percent in 2000.

It seems the "English mom" boom has returned, but this time around the emphasis is on early introduction over pre-examination cramming.

Preschools and playgroups offering English are gaining an edge with parents. Inspired by stories like the mom who started teaching her baby English before it was a year old, mothers are pushing their kids to develop second-language skills earlier.

The big difference for recent parents is the goal. Early English is no longer seen as a route to the fast track to an elite education. These days, parents are simply interested in giving their children the wider opportunities in life that English abilities can provide.

Yukari Morifuji, a homemaker in her 30s in Ehime Prefecture, is a celebrity of sorts among mothers nationwide who revere what she accomplished with her son.

"Even parents without good English can raise a bilingual child. It just takes a little subtlety," Morifuji writes on her Web site.

Morifuji began exposing her son to English when he was an infant. She read him books and played CDs and videos for two hours daily starting when he was 7 months old.

Now 9, he watches U.S. kids' programs on television, reads English novels and has even started writing his own stories in English.

Her Web site has received 3 million hits in the five years since she first began charting her son's progress. She featured samples of him speaking in English as proof of his achievements.
Mothers eager to do the same even came to consult Morifuji at her home for advice about what level of educational materials to introduce to their children.

"The important thing to remember is that Japanese comes first," Morifuji said. "Only then should English be taught. I also read many Japanese stories (to my son)."

ALC Press, a nationwide publisher of language teaching materials, issues Yochiyochi Eigo (English for toddlers) annually. The magazine is aimed at readers up to age 3, and features ideas such as singing English songs with hand games to begin with. For toddlers, reading in English and playing games in English helps.

It offers tips and suggestions geared for different age groups to aid parents hoping to raise bilingual children.

One recent feature was "Make bath time fun English time!"

A detailed planner accompanied by illustrations helps parents schedule daily English events, such as having children brush their teeth while listening to an English CD.

An ALC survey asking readers how much English they hoped their children would master received responses from about 400 people. Of those, 70 percent said they wanted their kids to know "enough to be able to communicate with foreigners without feeling shy."

Twenty percent said they wanted them to know enough English to land globetrotting jobs.
Masako Noguchi, 45, works for ALC's English-for-kids division.

"I assume there are parents out there who feel that 'If I could speak English, maybe there would have been more opportunities out there.' And they are the ones who are intent on teaching their children English and providing then with a bigger, wider world," Noguchi said.
Meanwhile, Benesse's Advanced Education Research Center this year surveyed about 3,000 parents with young children under 6 in the Tokyo metropolitan area regarding their toddlers' lives.

Overall, 14.2 percent said they sent their kids to English language lessons. In 2000, the figure was 5 percent.

More than 20 percent of 5- to 6-year-olds were studying English, and 10 percent of 2- to 3-year-olds.

Preschools that take on the additional role of English language school are catching on. An estimated 140 such English-oriented preschool facilities are operating nationwide, sources said.
At Shikahama English Adventures in Adachi Ward, Tokyo, which opened in 2001, bilingual lessons are taught by a pair of instructors--one a native English speaker, the other, a Japanese nursery school teacher.

Recently, toddlers assembled spider shapes out of cookies as they chanted, "A spider has eight legs." Then they wolfed down the goodies.

The center currently has 22 students, aged 2 to 6, attending classes five days a week from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuition is about 70,000 yen a month.

One Shikahama graduate passed the lowest, fourth-grade Practical English Proficiency Test (STEP, or eiken, test) when in the first grade of elementary school.

Parents are typical office workers or truck-driver dads and stay-at-home moms with part-time jobs.
The school advises parents to use English at home, although acknowledging that Japanese should be the primary language of communication.

The school knows some parents tend to become overzealous. In one case, being inundated with English at school and at home so confused a child that he stopped speaking Japanese.

English play groups, where English-speaking mothers or native speakers visit to play with the children, are also gaining popularity.

And many language schools now offer "kids courses" for students 12 and under.
One 36-year-old mother who sends her two children to an English language school said: "I can't speak English, but I want my children to be able to talk to foreigners without feeling self-conscious."

Kazuko Nakajima is a professor of Japanese as a second language at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies who specializes in bilingual education.

"There is a special window during development when children can absorb a (new language) through physical stimuli," Nakajima said.

"In that sense, starting English at an early age makes sense. But it has to be continued."
However, "the cardinal rule is to make the mother tongue the primary language. If the mother continues talking nonstop in English during crucial developmental stages, the child will be hampered in acquiring Japanese," Nakajima warned.

"Furthermore, a non-native-English-speaking mother trying to teach her child could cause much trouble for the child later on through cultural mismatching. Her words and grammar may not match the natural facial expressions and gestures that native English speakers use."

To avoid such problems, "Tapes and lessons from native speakers may be the best bet, not parents serving as English teachers."(IHT/Asahi: December 16,2005)



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