[EARLY ENGLISH EDUCATION: PRO AND CON]To think globally, English is key

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[EARLY ENGLISH EDUCATION: PRO AND CON]To think globally, English is key

The Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development has selected elementary schools that will teach English to first- and second-graders.
The ministry said that English classes would be tested in the selected schools for two years and it would monitor the results. Then the ministry will decide whether or not English will be included in the curricula of early elementary grades nationwide.
Some people are worried about this announcement, and call on the ministry to drop the plan. But I want to look at this decision from a positive angle.
The younger a child is, the larger his potential to learn a second language. This has been verified by both research and practice. Young children have a special talent and capacity to learn a language that older people no longer have.
First- and second-graders have already obtained enough language skills in Korean that they can be said to have mastered their native language, and they still have the flexibility and capacity to learn a second language when we look at their cognition, brain cells and vocal organs. If these traits are properly used, children at that age can learn a second language with ease.
Some people worry that if children start to learn English at such a young age they would have difficulty in learning Korean properly.
But this can happen only to the second generation of emigrants when languages other than Korean are used on a daily basis abroad, so that learning Korean is hard for them.
In a native Korean-speaking country, this fear is groundless because our children will learn English for one or two hours a week and Korean is still the dominant language in their lives.
Other people worry that if English is taught to children beginning when they are very young, it will distort their national identity as Koreans.
I hope that they can understand that we learn English as a tool out of necessity, not as a way to assimilate with English-speaking westerners.
English has long become a global language. This is the reality: We have no choice but to learn English because we need to advance on the global stage in order to develop even further.
The other day I read an article by the Federation of Korean Industries. It demanded that English courses be included in the elementary school curriculum in order to boost national competitiveness.
A national identity cannot be protected by shutting our doors. The right way to secure our national identity is to bring up our children as bilinguals who speak not only Korean but English fluently, so that they can work internationally to help our nation develop.
English courses have been included for higher grades of elementary schools for the past ten years. The people’s evaluation is divided.
But no one can deny that students who started learning English at an earlier stage have become more familiar with and confident in using English.
People should not block English education for young students because they are afraid of problems that education might entail. We should work together to find ways to maximize the good effects of English classes for young children.
Many of those who worry over this education plan contend that this measure would accelerate private tutoring for English.
In order to ward off such a worry, the administration, including the Education Ministry, should present proper measures to upgrade the quality of public English education using the experience of the past ten years. Bigger numbers of qualified native assistant teachers should be hired and supervised properly.
A training system for English teachers at elementary schools needs to be developed and improved. More mid- and long-term intensive English programs should be provided to incumbent English teachers of elementary school children.
Proper facilities and study rooms to learn English should be prepared in our schools.
The government also should provide unsparing financial and institutional aid in order to increase the efficiency of English classes for young children.

* The writer is a professor of English at Soongsil University.

by Park Jun-eon
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