Recent slanderous articles have claimed that the early teaching of English in kindergartens has a detrimental effect on young children. Two such articles include one by Chen Shu-chin ("English is a blight on young kids," Feb. 17, p. 8) and Jonathan Chandler ("Chomsky would frown," Feb. 20, p. 8), who attempts to explain the famous linguist Noam Chomsky's theory of language acquisition in hypothesizing that "When exposed to two languages with dissimilar sentence structures, such as Mandarin and English, a child's mind may well become confused and even impeded in its natural advancement."
While I highly doubt the seriousness of Chandler's teaching qualification, based on his misinterpretation of Chomsky's theory, he does make one important point, and that is the necessity for policies to be based on valid theory and research and not on the personal concerns of politicians and business owners.
First, it has long been believed that there is a critical or at least "sensitive" period for the acquisition of both first and second languages (Lenneberg, Chomsky, Krashen). In other words, the optimal time for language acquisition is before the age of six, after which the ability declines, meaning complete acquisition of a language will not be possible.
This explains why older children and adult learners always have a degree of difficulty with grammar and word usage in a foreign language (not to mention pronunciation!) no matter how long they learn it.
Chomsky proposes this is due to what he calls a "language acquisition device" and "Universal Grammar" which simply means that as humans we are born with an innate linguistic knowledge base and set of language learning procedures. Acquiring a new language then is as easy as setting the parameters and deducting the grammatical principals of the new language. Only when people begin to learn a language as a young child are they able to learn in this way.
This statement has been supported by Ping Li of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who says that given a linguistic environment for a limited number of years, children are able to learn their target language (first, second or third language) without much trouble.
This is difficult to apply to adult second-language learners because they approach the language learning task using different learning methods (ie, general problem-solving strategies) and most adult learners, if not all, fail to achieve perfect competence in the language, no matter how hard they try and for how long.
A great deal of research has also been conducted over the last five decades to determine the effect of bilingualism on cognitive development, an example of which are evaluations conducted over the last 30 years of Canada's French immersion programs.
Through this study, Cummins has shown that students in these programs who were educated through 100 percent French instruction in kindergarten and grade one, with only one period of English introduced in grade two, and equal instruction time introduced only in grade five, were able to add a second language to their repertory of skills at no cost to the development of their first language, English. There was also no cost to their English academic skills, due to the transfer of cognitive and literacy-related skills across languages, possible under Cummins's "Linguistic Interdependence Principle."
This is especially possible in Taiwan, where the Chinese language and culture is so strong and alive in the community and at home. As has been said by Hoffman and Krashen, where English immersion programs are a danger to children is in places like the US, where the community language is also English, which means that children are deprived of their native language. As long as exposure to both languages is rich, there is no problem.
Evidence such as this has prompted the following comment by Susan Curtiss, professor of linguistics at UCLA (in 1996): "?the power to learn language is so great in the young child that it doesn't seem to matter how many languages you throw their way ? They are able to learn as many spoken languages as you can allow them to ? there doesn't seem to be any detriment to develop[ing] several languages at the same time."
In fact, far from being detrimental, studies have repeatedly shown that bilingualism in children actually enhances cognitive development. For example, Hakuta & Diaz found in 1986 that bilingual preschoolers tested on measures of analogical reasoning, metalinguistic awareness, visual-spacial skills, classification and story-sequencing and block designs, actually performed better than monolingual children. Why? The fact that bilingual children have two words for the same referent, allows their mental concepts to have a greater degree of symbolism, abstraction and flexibility (Diaz & Klinger 1991, Peal & Lambert 1962, Cummins 1978).
As Genessee affirms:
"Children who are exposed to two linguistic systems from a very early age demonstrate a capacity to keep their two languages separate. Far from being a handicap, the process of acquiring two languages from a very early age is now seen to have cognitive as well as social benefits" (Educating Second Language Children, Genessee, F., Cambridge University Press, 1990).
With a Masters degree in Education specializing in second-language acquisition and bilingual education, and eight years teaching experience in early childhood education, I have both researched and personally experienced results such as these. The same results have also been experienced by many other teachers, eg. at the bilingual program at Yu-Tsai Elementary School.
Children who come from English immersion-style kindergartens have shown only a mild lag in Chinese proficiency, which is well and truly made up after 6 months, and much sooner if they have attended Chinese classes after school while in kindergarten. In addition, they are equally adept in both linguistic and cognitive tasks as the previously monolingual children, if not more so. There has been no evidence of "frustration in learning," "hampered development" or "hatred of the English language" in these children due to premature and overexposure to English, as some "educational experts" have been cited as warning in Chinese-language media. Nor do they show signs that their early-childhood development has been violated or sacrificed, as Chen Shu-chin has argued in his article.
My final argument for the early learning of English is the environment that kindergarten provides. Many kindergartens do provide a linguistically low-pressure, low-anxiety environment in which to learn the fundamentals of English through natural interaction.
This kind of low-anxiety environment is exactly what Krashen says is necessary for success in language acquisition. Krashen's "Affective Filter Hypothesis" states that there are a number of affective variables at play in acquisition of a second language, namely, motivation, self-confidence and anxiety. Conversely, children in Taiwan's elementary schools face a heavy workload from their regular subjects alone, even without the addition of English, where the only motivation lies in the pressure to attain a high score in the upcoming test. Moreover, the amount of time available to be spent on English in the regular elementary-school curriculum simply isn't enough to produce fluency and literacy in English.
With the English standards children are expected to achieve by junior and senior-high school, where does that leave the children? Forcing children to spend countless hours in expensive, business-run after-school cram schools, geared to making the children and parents happy, with little emphasis on producing proficient speakers, readers and writers of English, is hardly a favorable option!
The issue therefore should not be whether or not kindergartens should be allowed to provide English immersion or bilingual programs, nor should it be about the shrinking business in "bona fide" preschools, but rather what guidelines should be put in place to guarantee the overall quality and professionalism of English programs. These guidelines should address issues such as teacher training, curriculum content, discipline policies and access to instruction in the students' first language as an on-going after-school program.
Julie Barff is a curriculum director of a kindergarten in Yungho and holds a Master of Education degree from the Queensland University of Technology, Australia.
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