Interesting question.  There’s been a lot of press regarding the faddishness of English language learning particularly in Far East Asia, think China, Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and Hong Kong…  And indeed perhaps this is true.  In all these countries there is a craze to get your kids speaking English as soon as they can stand or sooner for the very pushy.  I was once approached on a Hong Kong street by a pram pushing young Mom enquiring about English ‘conversation’ lessons for her 3 month old. Truth, hand on heart. 

In many non-English speaking countries English is pretty much viewed as the window to the world, a key to a bright future. In Far East Asian countries there is also the belief that race has something to do with the success of learning English and parents are known to pay a premium to send their kids to classes with a Caucasian American for example.  I’ve known Caucasian Germans, Russians and other white skinned Europeans who speak English pretty much fluently as a second language to get English language jobs in tutorial schools over native English speakers of darker hues, i.e. Korean Americans, Chinese Americans, African Americans or British teachers of Indian extract…..  This of course is total nonsense and a great business opportunity for profit making schools with little regard to the success or quality of the language courses they are offering.

However back to the question, is English a fad?  I’d say no.  English does remain and will increasingly be a hugely important language of commerce and trade.  It pretty much goes without saying that strong English language skills are necessary for top notch jobs, whether one is a native speaker or non-native speaker of English.  Nevertheless I would say the younger and younger starters in the language attending the ever growing tutorial ‘farm’ schools of the English language is a fad.  How long before parents realise that this expensive exercise is in fact a waste of their time not to mention their money?

First of all, why do parents think such early exposure to English will help?  I guess this is where I need to jump in and say, the success of early exposure to any language depends entirely on the quality and relevance of the language input.  So sure, if you send your kids to an English speaking playgroup, this is age appropriate and possibly is helpful.  If you send them to grammar drill classes, this is not helpful.  I vividly remember being asked at a Nursery level parent-teacher evening why the 2.5 year old after a year of daily one hour English classes at school could the same 2.5 year old not speak English properly?????  This was not an isolated question.  Why is the child’s grammar ‘still’ all wrong??????  Of course this is where I just want to burst out laughing and tell the parent to get a grip, but of course that would not be appropriate….

What parents should know though is that early exposure to English does not ensure and far from guarantees greater success in the language.  In fact a later start with quality, level, age and context appropriate instruction is likely to reap far more rewards.  Why is this?  Simply the children are ready for it linguistically, mentally and emotionally. 

Of course no harm comes from early exposure to another language if it is appropriate, learning through play, reading and acting out stories to youngsters in small groups, attending a crafts class, swimming class or any class you like in another language will all perhaps help acquire that language. But for the very young, my advice is to stick to bolstering first language development.  Why?  Simply, strong literacy in the mother tongue will make any further other language learning much, much easier.  

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