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Eager parents put tiny tots in English classes to foster proficiency

Children enjoy a game using English letters, at Imagine Japan Ogikubo Jidoen in Suginami Ward, Tokyo. (Mainichi)

Ahead of English becoming a mandatory subject in academic 2020, services to provide English education to preschool children are booming.

    "OK, everybody! English time!" says an Englishwoman as children gather around her at "Imagine Japan Ogikubo Jidoen," a child care center in Suginami Ward, Tokyo, which opened in March 2015. The facility, which focuses on bilingual education, has 36 preschool students aged from 2 and looks after elementary students after school. It offers English programs that are adjusted to age level -- for example, 2-year-old children are taught the English alphabet and simple words, while 3-year-old children and older play games using English. There is a mix of foreign staff and Japanese child care workers, and the programs are held in English as a basic rule, including exchanges among children.

    The care center director, Takashi Watanabe, 52, says that most of the kids' parents want their children to acquire English to prepare for a global age.

    "It's important to create an environment where (the children) have to use English. Even if they use Japanese at home, by the time they leave here they will be able to use English to communicate," he says proudly, adding, "We want to raise children that can explain Japanese culture in English." As such, the programs involve Japanese events like cherry blossom viewing and the Tanabata festival. As preparation for elementary school, the care center includes English reading and writing in lessons for 3- to 5-year olds.

    "The experience of having focused themselves on something when they were young will give them confidence later. Here we are presenting English as an option for that," says Watanabe.

    The market for English language education for children is growing. According to a 2016 language business market survey by Yano Research Institute in Tokyo's Nakano Ward, the market for English-only preschools and similar facilities was 34 billion yen in fiscal 2015, up 3 billion yen from the previous fiscal year. The total market for foreign language schools for children was 101 billion yen in fiscal 2015, up 2 billion yen from fiscal 2014.

    The institute says that the growth accompanies the establishment of English as a mandatory subject in elementary school. The institute also says that the main customers for these kinds of schools are primarily wealthy parents with a high interest in English education, and more preschools are offering classes of just once or twice a week to tap into customer demand.

    At an English-language preschool in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, 35-year-old Mio Muraoka teaches English eurhythmics classes. She says, "It's important for children to be exposed to English while young, which is when they absorb language the most."

    Muraoka left her job after having a baby and focused on parenting, but since she could speak English well and was a qualified music teacher, her fellow mothers asked her to teach English and eurhythmics. She now teaches to around 50 groups of parents and their kids at a preschool and at cafes.

    Muraoka herself often listened to English songs at home as a child.

    "Thanks to that, I came to understand spoken English," she says. For the six years of junior high and high school she studied English on her own, spending two hours every day "shadowing," or repeating phrases from English language instruction CDs. While at university she became able to effectively speak English, and after an internship in the United States she was employed at a major bank, where she worked with international transactions.

    She also has experience as a cram school teacher and has seen students who began their English education in junior high struggling with grammar and vocabulary.

    "With Japanese (language acquisition) we advance from conversation, songs and games to reading and writing. Japan's English education doesn't build a good enough base for learning," she says. Her English eurhythmics classes are about 45 minutes long and are held about once a week. Parents and children participating in the lessons become accustomed to English through songs, primarily ones that make use of the hands such as "If You're Happy and You Know It."

    Muraoka always tries to teach in such a way that parents can replicate the lessons at home. "In the case of young children, they will learn much more if their parents study with them and use English at home," she says. She tells parents about video websites they can use to learn English songs that involve moving the hands and recommends that parents play in English at home as well.

    Meanwhile, Meikai University foreign language department professor and English language education expert Yukio Otsu says, "It's a good thing to be exposed to foreign languages as a child," but emphasizes that "it is necessary to be careful how you expose children to it." He worries that giving special attention to English will not raise children to be truly international people.

    He adds, "Japanese people tend to feel inferior for not being able to speak English, even people who have no need to speak it. First we have to get rid of that thinking. Truly international people are people who can respect each other, with an understanding that languages and cultures are relative."

    Regarding language learning, Otsu says, "Becoming good at mimicking pronunciation and set phrases, and being able to communicate are completely different." Language forms the basis of gathering one's thoughts, writing logical sentences and expressing ideas to others. To acquire it one must have an understanding of the grammar and sentence structure of that language. "If children understand the grammar of Japanese while in elementary school and acquire the basis for language learning, there is no problem with starting English education from junior high."

    To parents with small children, he says, "It's unnecessary to worry that if your children aren't exposed to English at an early age they will flounder in the future." Regarding parents who are giving their children English education, he comments, "I hope they will hold the view that there is no superior or inferior language."

    He says, "While children are small, I want parents to have them experience the enjoyment of words through Japanese picture books and children's songs, and create an entrance to the world of language. If children can then interact with a variety of foreign people and have the opportunity to experience the difference in cultures, that is best."

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