Never Too Early to Learn English

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Never Too Early to Learn English

"Flowers! One, two, three, four," shout a group of 5-year-old Korean children in English as their teacher, Wayne Gauthier, points at the pages of a textbook with colorful illustrations.

At a time when their peers would be in regular kindergartens or playing at home, these kids are learning English. In the second week of the new school year, the students are learning to count. Their enthusiasm is impressive.

When it is time for a break, Mr. Gauthier announces in English, "Time for a water break." The children, who answer to English names, march out in a single file much as they would at the neighborhood kindergarten. The keyword at this English-language kindergarten is "English": Everything, including math, science, arts and crafts, is taught in English to the children who range in age from 39 months to 5 years old.

At Wonderland in Bangbae-dong, Seoul, the kindergarten students are taught by a native English speaker and a Korean teacher, in what the school emphasizes is a fun environment. To make the learning setting more interesting, each classroom has a theme. Mr. Gauthier's class, named the Airport Class, is decorated in an airport setting complete with a check-in counter.

How do 5-year-old children who speak Korean most of the time adapt to speaking only English from 9:30 a.m. to 1:50 p.m.? "They do it naturally, without realizing that they are understanding or speaking English," said Dennis Norton, a teacher at Wonderland.

The curriculum for youngsters at this age concentrates on simple conversations to familiarize the children with the language. As immersion is a good way to learn a foreign language, children are discouraged from speaking Korean in class. When a child speaks in Korean during class, the teacher may take away his much-loved stickers.

For this early familiarization with the language, parents pay about 500,000 won ($380) a month in fees. Compare that to less than 200,000 won paid at regular kindergartens and it becomes clear that the parents are making a hefty investment in their children's future. And judging from the popularity of the estimated 300 or more similar English kindergartens around the country, some of which have waiting lists as long as six months, the parents appear to be eager to make the investment.

How can this early English education fever in Korea be explained? Part of the explanation is that parents feel they are victims of English themselves. Although most of them have had English classes since middle school and devoted countless numbers of hours to the study of the foreign language, they do not feel confident about speaking English.

Even out of school, Koreans have to tackle English at virtually every critical juncture in their career. English proficiency as measured by standardized tests such as TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) or TEPS (Test of English Proficiency, Seoul National University) are part of entrance examinations for new company recruits. Koreans cannot afford to ignore brushing up on their English even after they land their jobs because, to move up the corporate ladder, they need to take tests on various subjects including English proficiency. Indeed, for some, English appears to be a curse.

Hence, the parents' desire to have their children learn English as early and efficiently as possible. Although English is being taught beginning at third grade in elementary schools starting this year, many believe this is not early enough.

Some eager mothers actually start their youngsters on the path to English proficiency while they are still in the womb. "I just talked to him in English, as if he were my friend, to familiarize him with the sound and rhythm of the language," said Kim Joo-youn, 33, whose son is now 4 1/2 years old. When he was 20-months, Ms. Kim joined a mother-and-child program in English that met for 40 minutes a week. Since he was 30 months old, he has had a private English instructor.

Ms. Kim did not relegate teaching her son, Nam Seung-bum, to the teacher alone. She took an active role, practicing English at home with flash cards, songs and games when she came home from work. How a mother introduces the language is very important. It should never be forced, according to Ms. Kim, who has educated herself extensively on teaching a foreign language to children. For example, when Seung-bum was 3 years old, he lost interest in English as he rapidly expanded his Korean vocabulary but Ms. Kim just sat back and waited. "After a few months, he bounced back."

All the effort seems to be paying off. Seung-bum, who attends a regular kindergarten three days a week, can carry on basic conversations and read simple picture books by himself.

It is not an easy task to be consistent about learning English, especially when a young child is involved, but having a clear goal made it easier for Ms. Kim and her son. "I want Seung-bum to be able to play on a wider stage than just Korea if he wants to. I am giving him the ability to do that," said Ms. Kim, who is a manager at a multinational corporation where much of her work is conducted in English. Having spent her high school years abroad, she knows first-hand about the advantages of being fluent in English, especially in the age of globalization.

"I just hope that all this will familiarize him with the language so that it will not be a strange language when he is taught English at school," said Kim Kyung-ah, mother of a 30-month-old boy. Her son, Lee Ki-jung, started getting one-on-one English lessons four months ago.

During a typical 20-minute lesson, Ki-jung is introduced to a set of new vocabulary words, using flash cards with magnetic strips which produce a reading of the word when passed through a reading machine. For the 10-month course, Ms. Kim paid more than 400,000 won ($310) for the textbooks, and she pays the teacher 40,000 won a month.

"At this stage, Ki-jung knows about 100 words," said Youn Jeong-seon, who comes to the house once a week for the lessons. However, emphasis is always on having fun. "You can't force children this young to learn," said Ms. Youn.

Ms. Kim plans to send Ki-jung to an English-language kindergarten when he is old enough. "I think a foreign language should be acquired when children are very young so that they do not think of it as a foreign language," said Ms. Kim.

Even elementary school teachers who usually discourage private tutoring because children easily become bored in class, agree on this point. In her class of about 40 children, there is a wide discrepancy between those who have had lessons since they were young and those who are learning English for the first time, says Lee Mi-sung, a third-grade teacher at Hongje Elementary School, Seoul.

English lessons in third grade revolve around simple conversations with no reading, and children who have had previous exposure are more confident in speaking out in class, Ms. Lee noted.

"There is no denying," she concluded, "that the earlier they start, the better their pronunciation and the more they pick up."

by Kim Hoo-ran

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