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Is Earlier Really Better? Successful Foreign Language Education at the Primary Level

Tetsuo Harada
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Globalization is spurring English language education, and “English Activity” at Japanese public elementary schools from the 5th grade has already begun. In addition, the Special Committee at the Central Council for Education is in discussion on introducing English from the 3rd grade, an even earlier start, and turning English into a full-fledged subject with two periods per week for the upper elementary grades. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) aims to increase the number of schools with the International Baccalaureate (IB) program to 200, which grants eligibility for admission to universities in and outside Japan, either taught exclusively in English or in both English and Japanese. As official support of foreign language education for younger children, such changes would inevitably affect children across the country. This essay will look at the results of primary foreign language education to date and its future goals in order to achieve effective communication skills.

Foreign language education at the primary level

Foreign language learning, especially pronunciation, is assumed to be more successful earlier in life. However, there is a great misunderstanding here. This idea is based on the "Critical Period Hypothesis," proposed by academics such as Penfield and Lenneberg over half a century ago. It states that there is a period suitable for language learning, and during that time, a learner could gain linguistic capabilities comparable to their native language. However, this is based on immigrant children living in an English-speaking country such as the U.S. or the U.K. The situation is completely different for those studying English in a classroom setting, such as Japanese students, only a few hours a week.

In general, when studying English as a foreign language in an academic context like Japan, age does not significantly affect language learning. This has been proved in a recent series of studies in Europe as well (e.g., Muñoz, 2011, 2014), but even so, one might still believe there are advantages for starting early regarding pronunciation. On the contrary, there have been results showing that Taiwanese students who received English education from a young age were not different in listening skills from those who started after finishing elementary school (Lin, Chang & Cheung, 2004). The author (Harada, 2015) investigated the discrimination between [l] and [r] against background noise to compare university students who had started studying English as young children with those who had started in junior high school. The results were surprising: the late learners outperformed the early starters. These results clearly contradict the common belief that listening skills are better learned early. With only a few hours a week of exposure to English in a non-English speaking environment, starting young does not necessarily give an advantage.

This is not to say that early foreign language education is pointless. What matters is to separate linguistic ability from communicative competence. Past research suggests bilinguals possess a different linguistic system from monolinguals’ because of mutual influence between the two languages. For example, balanced bilinguals who speak Japanese and English have a different phonetic system in each language compared to monolinguals. In other words, aiming to acquire phonetic or grammatical proficiency on a native speaker’s level is unrealistic. The focus should be on developing communicative competence sufficient to engage in abstract language use in a second language.

Promoting abstract language use

To understand and express abstract academic content in a different language, it is crucial to receive instruction with a high quality and quantity of input, output, and interaction, over a sustained period. The length of this sustained period of study required to achieve an advanced level of fluency is roughly 2,500 to 3,000 hours for languages as linguistically distant as Japanese and English. However, the average Japanese will have studied English for only approximately 1,300 hours by the time they graduate university, less than half the time necessary.

So, what can be done? The current approach of “learning then using” is an obstacle to reaching the 2,500-hour mark. Therefore, it is necessary to learn and use the language simultaneously. Having said this, one cannot use language without a clear goal of using it for what purpose. One suggestion is not to study English as a school subject, but rather use it to study other subjects. This allows students to perform activities requiring abstract thinking and provides an opportunity for students to use English more naturally.

Encouragement of immersion education

The beginning of dual language education can be traced back to French immersion in Canada in the 1960s. Later, the U.S. developed Spanish immersion programs, and from the 1990s onwards, programs in Asian languages such as Japanese. Likewise, a limited number of private elementary schools in Japan have English immersion programs. The core feature of immersion education is that 50 to 100 percent of the subjects are taught in the target language, while the remaining subjects are taught in the home language. As students become older, this ratio shifts to 50:50 in order to promote cognitive development and appreciate cultural differences in both languages. The teachers are usually native speakers or bilinguals of the target foreign language, and children start with practically no prior knowledge of the language. In addition to these conventional immersion education programs (known as "one-way immersion"), two-way immersion programs have recently been attracting much attention. In two-way immersion education, the classroom comprises a balanced number of English speakers and native or near-native speakers of the partner language. For example, in the Los Angeles area in the U.S., some elementary schools offer two-way immersion programs in Japanese and English (Dunsmore Elementary School, El Marino Language School, Verdugo Woodlands Elementary School), with some subjects taught in Japanese and the others in English. It has been reported that this instructional model is successful in fostering interaction between the students with different cultural backgrounds, effectively advancing content and language learning concurrently.

In immersion education of this kind, the foreign language is not only taught on its own but integrated into other subjects, so that students naturally think abstractly in their native and second languages. There are high expectations for this approach to build communicative competence in both languages. Furthermore, implementing such immersion programs at an early stage would make IB education, which the MEXT is promoting, a realistic goal. In order to develop real communicative skills in a foreign language, it seems necessary to take more extreme measures.

Tetsuo Harada
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Tetsuo Harada graduated from the Department of English Language and Literature, the School of Education at Waseda University. He received his master’s degree in English education from the University of Tsukuba after teaching English at a senior high school. After working at a junior college, he pursued a graduate degree in phonetics from the University College London, studied Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) at the Institute of Education in London, and obtained a doctorate in applied linguistics from UCLA. He worked for the University of Oregon before assuming his current position in 2005. He was also a visiting professor and researcher at UCLA between 2013 and 2014. He specializes in second language acquisition, second language phonetics and phonology, English language teaching, and bilingual education. His articles on phonetic acquisition in immersion education have been published in international academic journals such as Studies in Second Language Acquisition.