Who profits from an early start in English?

Who profits from an early start in English language learning?

Who profits from an early start in English language learning?

不要讓你的孩子輸在起跑點上 (Don’t let your children lose out at the starting point.) is one of the most popular slogans whenever English education in Taiwan is discussed. The notion that, when it comes to English language learning, younger is better, is widely accepted by Taiwanese people.

As a result, Taiwanese children are compelled to learn English as early as possible. In 2004 Taiwan’s Ministry of Education mandated all public elementary schools should start English courses from Grade 3 but the majority of schools actually begin to teach English in the first grade. Some private language schools even offer all-English programs for toddlers as young as one-year-old. Thus, there can be no doubt that both the public and private sectors subscribe to the argument that English should be taught at an early age.

The belief in the importance of an early start in English is widely promoted by private language schools, as in this video clip, which likens young children to the earth in which English is planted like a seed. The short text in Mandarin Chinese introducing the video explains the principle as follows:







Plant a seed

Education (English) – plant a seed in children’s minds.

It will germinate and eventually it will grow into a big tree with large green leaves.

Let language grow naturally! (My translation.)

This text implies that age is the critical factor in successful English language learning  as an early start will enable “natural mastery” of English. One of the central themes of the commercial is the repeated assertion that children have an extraordinary ability to learn English and that they will acquire English naturally through English-Only immersion methods taught by native English-speaking teachers. The video also suggests that English can be learned in a “joyful” way at an early age in the school’s playful learning environment and that this “natural method” will achieve extremely positive outcomes.

The commercial drives this point home with testimonials by parents interspersed throughout the video: they claim that their children became “more confident”, “more active” and “more opened-minded” through learning English. Reaffirming points made by the parents are native English-speaking teachers basically promising that Taiwanese children will see the whole world differently as English will give them a global perspective. The overarching concepts of the text and video are that English should be learned at an early age and in doing so English learning will transform Taiwanese children into “global” individuals.

As mentioned earlier, although public schools officially start teaching English from 3rd grade, the language school market pressures Taiwanese parents to send their pre-school children to language schools to get a head start. Language schools market English language learning to mirror first language acquisition. In other words, age is considered the primary determinant in successful English language learning. This directly links to the widespread belief that there is a critical period in language learning and that children are better second language learners.

However, there are many studies that contradict the premise of “the earlier, the better.” There is ample evidence to suggest that language learners who have a firm foundation in their native language, in this case Chinese, will fare better in second language learning. Nonetheless, in Taiwan there is no shortage of over-eager parents sending their children to language schools or bilingual kindergartens to obtain an English education at a very young age. Given the English learning hype they are prepared to ignore the possibility that their children might be disadvantaged eventually for being deprived of basic knowledge in their first language.

Furthermore, even when Taiwanese English learners begin at an early age, they rarely exhibit perfect mastery of English. In reality, age is only one of the many factors that contribute to an individual’s language learning. Second language or foreign language acquisition involves a number of complex learner variables, such as student motivation, attitudes towards learning, learning styles, aptitude, conditions for English teaching and learning and the goals of English education. Furthermore, these are all embedded in the broader political, social, economic and teaching contexts.

The aim of an earlier start for English is assumed to lead to modernization and internationalization in Taiwan but before achieving this lofty ideal English creates an unequal relationship among the people in contemporary Taiwanese society.

In light of the evidence that an early start in English is not necessarily beneficial and may have negative consequences even for the individual and in light of the heavy social cost of Taiwan’s English craze, Taiwan may need to re-evaluate its current beliefs and think about restructuring its failing English learning system. Just because children start early, does not mean they will reach the finish line faster. In fact, when it comes to English language learning, there is no absolute finish line …

Author Jackie Chang

Jackie Chang is an assistant professor in the English Department at National Pintung University of Education in Pintung, Taiwan. She holds a PhD in Applied Linguistics from the University of Sydney, where she worked under the supervision of Ingrid Piller. Before becoming an academic, Jackie gained extensive experience in the English language teaching industry in Taiwan.

More posts by Jackie Chang
  • Great post. From my point of view, teaching English to small Taiwanese children, or Chinese/Spanish to little kids in the US, etc., misses the point entirely. If these kids don’t live in a community where they can use the language with their peers, few of them will retain anything. The key ingredient in the speedy acquisition of an L2 by kids in immersion environments is usually that they need and want to use it with native and fluent speakers their own age. The “immersion” part is a little bit of a red herring, and I don’t think it can be simulated by teachers (or “English villages”).

    There are a lot of other problems with these pushes. For example, I also strongly feel that kids ought to have a choice about which L2 they learn. We (teachers, parents, citizens) need to bring up these drawbacks and also examine the profit motive involved in the case of testing companies, publishers, and private schools.

    • Jackie Chang

      Clarissa, thanks for your comments. Although environment is not the sole determinant in language learning it does play a significant role. I have seen some Taiwanese achieve great English speaking ability without traveling abroad, but this is not the norm. Also, I don’t disagree with working to learn another language in one’s home country. After all, you have to start somewhere. However, I do think achieving a high level of proficiency is a bit more complicated than just getting an early start or manufacturing environments (English Village).

      • jeff

        This is just a straw man argument. No academic really believes that all that is needed is an early start– as if this is the only factor and the quality of education, environment, motivation, ect don’t matter. Of course it is “a bit more complicated than just getting an early start”!

        But the Taiwanese government actually goes many steps further and alleges not that it is “a bit more complicated than just getting an early start” but actually argues that English is harmful to children, and bans its presence by law in kindergartens.

        There is an enormous logical gulf that separates these two positions, but all too often in Taiwanese government policy good research is substituted for slight of hand where the arguments above are used interchangeably. It is farce, and it is unfortunate. The real issue is the quality of English education that most kindergartens provide, which you have correctly alluded to in other posts, but again the slight of hand removes this from the equation and instead frames the argument around the presence of language programs rather than around their quality.

        The result of the ban on rather than regulation of early childhood English education is the creation of a permanent underclass whereby the wealthy send their kids to experimental schools, international schools, bilingual schools that are rich enough to ignore the law, or hire private tutors, ect while the poor and middle class kids are barred by force of law from the same opportunities.

  • Andrew Bunting

    I appreciate a research driven approach on this subject, because I know that advancing arguments from any agenda has manifold policy and practice implications. You mention that research says that a “firm foundation in the native language” is the key to success to second language acquisition. However, claiming that an early start in a second language is counter-productive to this end is not something you asserted from a research basis. I really need to see some clear research proving diminished outcomes from early education in second languages. I say this because unfortunately the policy outcome of this kind of argument is more often than not simply a xenophobic prohibition on non-citizens of Taiwan teaching young children, which is an absurdity of a racialist character.

    • Jackie Chang

      Andrew, Thank you very much for your interest in my post. I don’t necessarily think that starting at a young age is a bad thing. On the other hand, I have seen this earlier-the-better approach emphasized and it has not yielded very good results; Taiwan continues to be ranked very low internationally when it comes to English language learning. This indicates that there is a variety of other language learning factors that need to be considered. As for looking at the subject of language learning and its relation to a foundation in one’s native language, you might be interested in looking at chapter 2 and 9 of my Ph.D thesis.

  • I’ve seen conflicting research on this and, as far as I am concerned, the jury is still out. However what is happening here is not, I believe, schools evaluating the research and providing the best possible solution to their students. It is merely the schools cherry picking the research to backup their own desire for more profits. The results may be perfectly justified, but the path used to get there is slightly askew!

    • Jackie Chang

      Thank you very much for your interest in my post. There is certainly a lot of conflicting research and schools of thought when it comes to language learning. I do agree that language schools are cherry picking to suit their needs and ignoring a lot of the research that may not be in line with their own brand of language learning.

  • Li Jia

    Thanks for your post, Jackie. I quite agree with your statement “there is no absolute finish line regarding English language learning”. Take a look at the “acknowledges” by PhD students in their finished theses, many of them who used to be university English teachers still find their English not good enough to prepare themselves for advanced academic pursuit in an English speaking country. Thus, knowing what we truly need is the only way to figure out how to learn it and when to learn it instead of being trapped in the hype “not lose out at the starting point”. Wise learning comes from wise mind anyway.

    • Jackie Chang

      Li Jia, thank you very much for your comments. Language learning is a journey and not a destination. Something I think all students should bear in mind is the fact that there are different registers of language. The language level a student wants to attain needs to in line with the purpose of learning the language.