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Thursday, May 31, 2001

New curriculum sees parents push English for infants


Second of two parts Staff writer Yukiko Wada left her Tochigi home at 8 a.m. one Saturday with her 2-year-old daughter, Hinami. While their journey to Tokyo's Eifuku-cho in Suginami Ward seemed a bit long, it became worthwhile when they encountered an American acquaintance near their destination.

"Hey, Eric-san is coming," Wada told her daughter. "What should you say? 'Hello,' right? Say 'hello!' "

The 2-year-old was a little shy, but she relaxed after being greeted by the man.

"Did you feel a little surprised that we bumped into him? How lucky we are!" The mother lifted her daughter in her arms and entered a building overrun with young mothers and children.

She was among some 500 participants in an English-language event organized by ALC Press Inc. that aims to teach children English through songs and games. Wada (not her real name) and her daughter had attended the event twice before, so they had come to know the American instructor.

"In Japan, it is difficult to be involved in an English environment without taking these opportunities," she said. "I definitely wanted my daughter to learn English from an early age."

Misao Kojima came to the event with her 5-year-old son, Daigo, who has been listening to English music and stories at home since before he turned 1.

"I learned from my own experiences that school education alone is insufficient," Kojima said. "I am trying to expose my son to English sounds every day. He has very good pronunciation."

Mothers with small children increasingly want to give their children English-language lessons from an early age. One reason is that the language will be taught in elementary schools starting next spring under a new curriculum formulated by the Education Ministry.

Bringing about a major change in the school curriculum, which now requires high

schools to teach English, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry will allow elementary schools to teach English on a noncompulsory basis from April.

Further encouragement was a recommendation by an advisory panel to the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi last year that Japan should consider adopting English as its official second language.

"Compared with when I was a child, circumstances have changed drastically. English is becoming more important as an international language," said Yuko Katogi, in her early 30s, who sends her two sons -- 4 and 6 -- to a local English school once a week.

"If they start English lessons early, they will learn it better at elementary school," she added.

Focus on kids

The Berlitz language school, which had traditionally focused on businesspeople, started English classes for children last year.

New business the company has obtained over the past year has far outstripped expectations, said Takanori Kurihara, director of Berlitz Kids Division of Berlitz Japan Inc. "Mothers are quick to catch the (early English education) trend," Kurihara said.

The school's typical clients are mothers in their 30s with college educations who have often traveled abroad, he said.

"They acknowledge that a good command of English helps them enjoy their life and brings about opportunities to develop their careers," he said.

ECC Junior, which offers English classes for children across the country, has also noted an increasing demand of late, with an approximate 10 percent rise in the number of classes over the past year, school spokesman Toru Masunaka said.

And the Shane English School chain, which provides classes for children aged 3 and above, has had a growing number of inquiries from parents of kids younger than 3, Shane spokeswoman Yukari Yamanoi said.

"Since the Education Ministry announced the new curriculum, the circumstances have totally changed," Yamanoi said. "Parents are so eager to get their children studying English that it's like an obsession."

The tendency to start English classes at an earlier age is also reflected by the readership of a popular information magazine on English for children.

The most frequent readers of the annual Kodomo Eigo Catalog, (Catalog on English for Children) -- which collates information on children's English classes and events and on how to raise bilingual kids -- are parents of 2-year-olds, according to the publisher, ALC Press.

The magazine has doubled its readership between 2000 and 2001, according to Seori Osawa, editor in chief of ALC's children's English section.

"In the past four years, the number of readers has grown about five-fold," she said, noting parents seem to be seriously concerned about preparing their children for English lessons in elementary schools.

Calming effort

Education Minister Atsuko Toyama, in an apparent effort to calm worried parents, recently said that the question of how early children should start learning another language while still in the process of honing their mother tongue remains a matter for debate.

Indeed, some experts say children should first be able to fluently express themselves in their native tongue before learning another language.

In a report compiled in December by the National Language Council of the Cultural Affairs Agency, experts said learning other languages must be prefaced by an understanding of the mother tongue.

They stressed the significance of acquiring Japanese first at an early age, noting that experts generally agree that the mother tongue isn't effectively mastered until around age 10, although there are individual differences.

"To actively communicate with foreign people, a good command of English is very important," said Osamu Mizutani, a member of the council and a professor at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies.

"But toward that goal, we must remember the importance of the Japanese language at the same time."

Mineo Nakajima, president of Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, however, said children can start studying English around age 4 while still learning their mother tongue.

"They can listen to and learn another language well at that age," said Nakajima, who served as head of an Education Ministry panel on elementary school English education. "The ability to speak Japanese will not be disrupted simply by learning another language."

However, he warned, "We should be careful not to stir up unnecessary competition among parents to give their children English lessons from an early age, because such competition will cause children to hate English."



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