|Linguistics scholars say the Korean government's English education for children is heading in the wrong direction. / Korea Times file|
By Jung Min-ho
The government's policy to ban English education for children who are "too young" is based on the assumption that teaching them Korean and English simultaneously may hamper their mother-tongue development.
But many linguists find the assumption incorrect. They also think the advantages of learning a foreign language at an early age outweigh ― if there are any ― its costs in the long term.
"I do not understand the pedagogical motivation for this policy at all," Robert Kluender, a linguistics professor at the University of California San Diego, told The Korea Times. "Is it based on any research? It doesn't sound like it. Limited exposure to a second language for an hour or two a day in a school or preschool setting is never going to supplant the dominant language of the culture that children otherwise hear and speak at home and in other settings on a daily basis."
Richard Donato, a professor in the University of Pittsburgh's instruction and learning department, agrees. He believes the limited amount of time children study a foreign language would "never exert a negative impact on the development of the mother tongue."
"There is no evidence whatsoever that an early start to foreign language learning has any negative impact on the development of oral or literacy abilities in the mother tongue," he said. "What occurs in most cases is just the opposite. The mother tongue influences foreign language learning."
So contrary to popular misconception, it is not the case that exposure to a second language at any time during childhood before adolescence will yield equivalent outcomes. "The clock starts ticking from birth with regard to ultimate language proficiency," Kluender said.
About 7,000 afterschool English teachers at elementary schools across Korea will lose their jobs in March when the Ministry of Education's policy comes into force. The ministry also plans to apply the policy to children at kindergartens and daycare centers, which is expected to affect tens of thousands more teachers.
Apart from the job crisis, according to the scholars, the ministry will do children a disservice by pushing ahead with the policy.
Over the past 25 years, numerous studies have shown that the earlier children are exposed to a second language, the better their ultimate proficiency in it will be.
"In other words, the later the first exposure to a second language in childhood, the less proficient that individual will be in it in the long term," Kluender said. "It is only children who are exposed to a second language at very early ages who eventually (with continued exposure to the language) approach native speaker proficiency on a variety of measures.
"Some studies have even shown a break in ultimate proficiency between children exposed to the second language before and after five or six years of age. In view of this, delaying first exposure to English until about eight years of age (third grade) seems like utter folly."
One of the most evident disadvantages of not starting to learn a foreign language at an early age is the hurdle of acquiring its pronunciation.
Many Koreans find English pronunciation difficult to master. Kluender reckons delaying first exposure to English only serves to help guarantee that this will continue.
In the case of a fully bilingual situation, or an English immersion environment, children may experience confusion of learning different languages at the same time for the first few years but they catch up and often outperform their monolingual counterparts by around 10 years old, the scholars said.
"There is research to suggest that while learning a foreign language early might initially slow down learning of the first language, the effect is short-lived, and indeed, after a while, the insight a child gains through learning a foreign language (or languages) will overall be highly beneficial," Keith Johnson, an emeritus professor of linguistics and language education at Lancaster University, said.
Many experts The Korea Times contacted said the ministry's policy lacks logic and benefits nobody.
In fact, teachers and parents of children alike have raised their voices against the policy here, saying it will only deepen the English gap between children from rich families who can just send them to expensive, fully private English academies and the ones who cannot afford it.
"Additionally, children do not learn their mother tongue error free, whether they learn a foreign language or not," Donato said. "They will always develop their first language in ways that do not mirror adult grammar. This will have nothing to do with learning a foreign language. This is the natural course of language development."