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 …