[Viewpoint] Use TV as an English learning tool

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[Viewpoint] Use TV as an English learning tool

A 13-year-old Korean girl recently made news for getting a perfect score on the Internet-based Test of English as a Foreign Language. Reports headlined the fact that Kim Hyun-soo, a seventh grader at Daewon International Middle School, studied English at home and has never been to English-teaching institutes. Her case is mystifying to other students who spend long hours in English institutes almost daily, wrangling with what often seems to be an inaccessible language. Sure, she probably has a natural talent for languages. But that alone cannot explain her mastery of English. She says she had easy access to English for years. She read English books and watched Disney movies. She had been fortunate to converse with her mother in English at home. Such a casual accessibility to English augmented her natural gift. Linguists agree language is best learned at an early age.

Language can be thought of as coming from two different but related directions. It is partly a cultural phenomenon that is learned through natural interactions. Of course, language also has a biological basis that is passed on genetically. The two complement each other and are both necessary. To learn a language, the two must converge.

The merging takes place when innate natural ability for speech is presented with a particular language. That happens very early on. Newborns are born with the physical capacity and mental structure to pick up the language commonly used in their community. Their rapid learning from immediate surroundings is a process called imprinting, a function that can be likened to the role of software on a computer’s hard drive.

Imprinting is common in the animal world. Surroundings can change quickly, but genes only change slowly. Encoding for physical surroundings in the genome would be next to impossible. So, instead, our genes give us the ability to learn and adapt. Selective containment, transport and acquisition of language - in other words, imprinting - is natural.

Imprinting occurs for a specific and limited period. After that, the effect of fixing recognition and acquisition is lessened. Baby birds recognize the first moving object as their mother shortly after hatching. Early biologists called these hours a “critical period.” The critical period for speech imprinting can start before birth and last until as late as around age 11. The language a child picks up during this period becomes his or her mother tongue. If a child learns two languages at the same time, he or she becomes bilingual.

Language acquisition is a natural process. A newborn actually hears speech while inside a mother’s womb. And a month-old baby responds better to the language used by his or her mother. The development of language awareness and learning from the womb has been confirmed by a recent study. Researchers found infant cries carry a parents’ vocal accent. By the age of 5, a child can develop language skills equal to an adult. Miss Kim’s exceptional English skills can be largely attributed to otherwise natural childhood learning.

Language is learned, not taught. A child usually can speak, read and write in its mother tongue before entering school. The problem with our English education is that children are taught against their will, not helped to learn, after they have passed the critical period for language acquisition.

Unless English becomes our first language, we cannot provide an environment where children can easily and naturally learn it. Maybe the best we can do at this point is to provide three or four channels on cable TV offering children’s programs in English. The programs can be in various formats - sing-a-long, animation, story-telling, plays and movies for different age groups. Children can pick up English usage in diverse situations by watching TV.

Early English learning through TV entertainment can also help ease the worsening social gap and inequality stemming from English competence. When English is learned through the educational system, the level of fluency depends on the financial ability of a child’s parents. Miss Kim was fortunate to be born to educated parents. But children of underprivileged homes have neither the money nor opportunity to learn. They will have a better chance of competing in a society with a growing emphasis on English if they can access the language from TV.

*The writer is a novelist.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Bok Koh-ill
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