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Sunday, May 5, 2002

Live and learn and learn

Staff writer

Swimming. Piano. English conversation.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Tokyo-based Living Lifestyle Institute, these are the three most popular narai-goto, after-school extracurricular lessons for children.

News photo
Children receive instruction at NEWS, a Saitama-based school that teaches English and other skills.

Swimming and piano, the longtime favorites, placed first and second, but this is the first time English has broken into the top three, passing other narai-goto regulars, such as shuji (calligraphy).

The survey polled mothers of children up to 12. About 30 percent of those surveyed said their children are currently learning English, and another 40 percent said they plan for their children to learn the language in the future. According to the survey, about 20 percent of children ages 3 to 5 have already started English lessons.

"Parents are extremely enthusiastic about English lessons for their children. That is one feature of the recent trend of children's narai-goto," says Kumiko Nishiuchi, editor in chief of Okeiko Kids, a quarterly magazine specializing in after-school activities. "Since many parents have a sort of complex about their English ability, they naturally believe their children should acquire English for their future."

The trend also reflects the government's increasing emphasis on early language-learning. Under a new policy adopted by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry in April, more public elementary schools have started to teach English. Until that time, students had customarily started learning English at age 12, when they entered junior high school.

Another recent trend of narai-goto, Nishiuchi says, is diversification. "Recently parents seem to have become much more serious about the importance of acquiring special skills that will help broaden the choice of the future course for their kids," she says.

Among the narai-goto currently offered are painting, cooking, gymnastics, dance, acting, soccer, baseball and other sports, as well as business-simulation classes for learning computer skills.

Behind the diversification trend lies increased competition among the schools offering the classes, due to the dwindling birthrate. Desperate to attract more students, the schools have had to offer more services to appeal to parents, Nishiuchi says.

"As a result, more and more children go to two or three outside-school classes at the same time."

Indeed, the mother of an elementary school boy in Tokyo said her son was attending swimming, English and piano classes.

This may also have to do with the educational reforms. With the start of the five-day school week at public elementary schools in April, children have more free time for outside school activities.

Does this mean that today's children will grow up to be broadly skilled?

Perhaps. But, the mother we spoke to said her son quit all three of his courses when he became a sixth-grader because he had to prepare for the high school entrance examination. He now goes to a cram school instead and is holding off on piano, swimming and English for a while -- or maybe forever.

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