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[Voice] How early should kids learn English?

With parents starting their children’s education younger ...

July 29, 2013 - 19:41 By Korea Herald
Korea’s English fever is well known. Despite a free public education system ranked among the best in the world, Korean parents spend some 20 trillion won ($18 billion) on private education each year, much of it on English education.

For many parents, the younger their children can start learning, the better. In one survey carried out by Korea Institute of Child Care and Education in 2011, more than 90 percent of respondents with children in the first or second grade had begun their child’s English education between the ages of 3 and 5.

Capitalizing on this demand, English-language kindergartens have become popular among parents who can afford their typically high tuition fees. But is younger always better when learning a second language?
Young children study English at an elementary school in Sejong City. (Yonhap News)

“I think the most appropriate age to start learning English is 9, as we currently do in our public school system,” Lee Hyun-oo, an English language professor at Inha University, Incheon, told The Korea Herald. “The majority of parents whose kids start learning English before schooling begins should realize that their kids will eventually lose more than they will get in the course of their growth.”

Lee said that too many parents had unrealistic expectations of their children when settling on when to begin their English education.

“If I were the father of a linguistic prodigy, I would have my kid’s English education start as early as 3 or 4. But how many kids can be called linguistic prodigies? ... There’s nothing as foolish as to believe that one’s own child is a genius.”

‘Right’ age

The question of whether there is an optimal age for foreign-language learning has long generated disagreement among education experts. In the 1950s, Canadian neurologist Wilder Penfield and Lamar Roberts contended that changes in the brain as it aged made instinctive learning impossible after childhood. Others, such as psychology professor Fred Genesee of McGill University in Montreal much more recently, have argued that our brains are considerably more flexible and adaptable to learning.

Jeanette Vos, a Dutch-American education expert and author of “The Learning Revolution,” contends that second-language acquisition is possible from as young as 3 years of age.

“I think probably at about the age of 3 or 4 (is a good time to start) if they are already currently speaking their own language, because up to about age 4, 50 percent of the neural pathways have already been laid down. So you do want to capture it at about 3 or 4 years old.”

But Vos said that for learning to be effective it had to be fun, not a source of stress. Hanging signs written in the second language around the house or doing activities such as cooking through the language could all help the learning process, she said.

“For example, at the dinner table you can say ‘let’s learn how to speak English! And this word in Swedish is whatever, or this word in Korean ― in English we call it potato,’” she said. “Then you make a game of it. And that is probably the most critical thing: whether they start at age 3 or 4 or even 5 or just a little bit later.”

Other educators, such as Lee Mun-woo, an assistant professor at the department of English language education at Hanyang University, believe that starting early is only likely to help with mastering certain aspects of the language.

“As far as the studies are concerned, actually there is no set age in terms of starting English as a second language as an education,” said Lee, “but as far as pronunciation (goes) … age 6 or 7 is kind of a magic number in our field because after that age you cannot really acquire the native pronunciation.”

Parents should bear in mind that very young children may not readily acquire command of a second language, Lee added.

“I cannot really say it will be potentially harmful or that it will be useless in the future but probably I think it will not get advantages for those children aged 4 or 5 because they are too young to acquire anything,” she said. “In my perspective it is just for the parents’ satisfaction. ... It is more related to parents’ psychological relief.”

How, not when

More important than when learning begins, however, may be the method used. Kwon Or-yang, an English education professor at Seoul National University, said that different styles of teaching were more effective for certain age groups than others.

“There are studies that show that older learners do better in explicit rule-oriented classroom learning than younger learners and that younger learners do better in natural communication learning,” said Kwon.

“Therefore, in Korea, when children begin learning English is not so important as how they learn it. Effective and intensive teaching can produce competent learners even when they start in middle school.”

Kwon added, however, that starting young could have an advantage simply in terms of accumulating more hours of language learning.

“In the light of the amount time required to ‘master’ English, it may be good to start early so that the learners can have more time for learning throughout their school years. But ineffective teaching in early years may ― and does ― affect the learners to be weary of learning English in the later years.”

But even if educators could settle on an ideal period for learning, some would still question the benefits of Koreans’ intense preoccupation with the language. The considerable costs are not just financial, but social as well. Korean children, studying longer and sleeping less than their peers in other developed countries, have been ranked the unhappiest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Media reports of suicide by schoolchildren are common, especially around the time of the national college entrance exam, or “suneung.”

Status symbol

Hanyang University’s Lee said it is worth scrutinizing the notion that all or most Koreans had to have a high level of English.

“I worked as a high school teacher before and I had the opportunity to meet some high school students who told me, ‘I don’t really have to learn English because I am going to be a mechanic.’ … And I think that makes sense,” she said.

Lee added that English was still prized by many as a mark of social status more than for its practical value.

“Some of the national elites who founded the nation itself, they all studied in the States, they all speak English and people kind of internalized this image: If you speak good English you will become an elite in this society.”

By John Power (

Readers’ voice

Early English education ...

When it comes to education of the young, what parents worry about mostly is teaching English to children. Parents consider teaching English to children in a harsh way first. However, they then realize that children might be frightened of English. So how should young children start learning English? I suggest mainly two ways in which children should begin studying English: Children should learn English in interesting ways and make foreign friends.

A variety of fun methods can be used to learn English. For example, when I was young, my parents showed me numerous animated videos from Walt Disney and movies set in the U.S. and other countries where English is spoken, and played me a number of English children’s songs. While watching the movies, I repeated every single line of the characters. By repeating after the characters, I could naturally improve my English skills. I was able to increase my vocabulary and learn how to pronounce a number of words. English was not at all boring. It was rather a chance for me to love English and become motivated to learn English more and more.

Making foreign friends is one of the most effective ways to learn English. By making friends, children can become familiar with conversational English. One of the major reasons why parents in Korea desire to send their children to English kindergartens is because they want their children to accustom themselves to English. However, rather than investing money in private education, it is much more effective to make foreign friends. For instance, when I was in third grade, I had a pen pal named Christina. Christina and I exchanged emails everyday. Since I was really young, I made plenty of grammatical mistakes. Whenever I made mistakes, Christina helped me correct the mistakes. Also, when Christina visited Korea, we went to shop and watch movies together. While spending time together, I was capable of becoming accustomed to speaking English. In school, my teacher often said that my English skill improved each day. In addition, I was able to win prizes in numerous English speech contests. I definitely received help from my foreign friend, Christina.

There are diverse ways in which the young can learn English, rather than investing money in private education. Like there is also a saying that goes, “The one who does one’s best cannot defeat the one who enjoys what one does.” In some circumstances, enjoyment becomes the most essential value that one should pursue to become successful.

― Kim Hee-sun, Seoul

Obesity in Korea ...

Having lived in Korea for the last 10 years I have clearly seen a shift regarding this problem in Korea, and kids are clearly looking like they are at the early stages of obesity.

My first example is the “kimchi issue.” In 2003, if I asked my students (elementary level) if they liked kimchi, nearly every student would raise their hand. Now, out of 10 kids, three or four will not raise their hand. As we know, Korean food is extremely healthy, but kids are definitely eating more unhealthy Western food instead.

This leads me on to “availability.” When my ex-girlfriend ― now 32 ― was a teenager, the only junk food available was Lotteria and maybe one pizza joint. Now other chains are everywhere. Her generation definitely look much thinner, and in my opinion, stick to a healthier regime of eating Korean food.

We cannot, in a free market economy, blame the government. We can blame the parents, and they are the only ones who can stop this fast-evolving problem in Korea.

― Daniel Cunningham, Seoul

We are facing tough times; so it is no wonder that people are getting concerned about weight gain as well as being obese. People in South Korea, which is known as a country with beautiful women who are slim and men who are muscular and lean, are now looking at their weight as well as the food that they eat. Medical doctors are noticing the rise of people going to the hospital for a checkup as well as to ask for some ideas on how to stay in shape and not be obese. Though going to the hospital costs money, rather than spending, they can save by getting advice from a friend or searching for information online.

The people in South Korea are gaining weight; though it is not bad compared to the United States. Having a little bit more fat does not mean that you are obese it is fine to stay in the middle. This means that you are slim but don’t look like a stick as well as not looking fat. You have muscle and are in great shape; this can all be done by doing some cardio workouts and by going to the gym. South Korea does not have an obesity problems the people just need to eat properly and on time ― midnight dinners are not good and lead to weight gain ― get 7-8 hours of sleep, stop drinking soju so that they do not get a beer belly, exercise, and drink tea and not caffeinated beverages. Yes, it is understandable that people hang out to drink and eat late after work, though that needs to stop by having decent meals and drinking something better than alcohol.

One thing happening right now is people are looking for ways to become or stay slim. People are buying diet pills hoping that they will lose weight or not gain weight. It really is something people are concerned about due to the stress that they face every day. If people follow what I mentioned, then the country of South Korea would not have to worry about being an obese country.

― James Buhain, Reno, Nevada, United States