Now or later: when should children learn English?

It is important to encourage children to learn English as long as they already master their mother tongue. www.shutterstock.com

Now or later: when should children learn English?

The use of English in everyday life is on the rise in Indonesia. We can hear people speak English in offices, banks, schools, tourist destinations and various public spaces. Some people even do it with a bit of a twist.

International schools with English curriculum have become a new favorite for parents. In these schools, educators use English in classrooms to communicate with students. The English programs are available starting from pre-schools.

Many fear that the early exposure of English may disrupt children’s language development. Some parents and other parties worry about the loss of the children’s first language; in this case Indonesian.

I carried out a research in 2017, interviewing 7 parents in Jakarta. These parents believe in the importance of exposing children to a second (foreign) language as long as children obtain enough exposure to their mother tongue.

Based on this unpublished research and other theories, I would like to explain below when will be the best time to introduce children to English as their second language.

English as a second language

Our first language, or what is often called our mother tongue, is the language that we first learned as a child. For Indonesians, the first language might be Indonesian language or ethnic languages.

What is Indonesian people’s second language? It depends. For people with a strong Javanese background and use Javanese for their daily conversation, their second language might be Indonesian. While for people who use Indonesian language for regular interactions, their second language might be one of the ethnic languages or foreign languages.

By definition, language that comes after the first language is a second language. In Indonesia, therefore, English can be a second language as its adoption very often comes after the mother tongue or the first language.

The popularity of English in Indonesian schools

Possessing skills to communicate with other people from different cultural and language backgrounds is one of the keys to succeed in the global era. Parents often feel that it’s important for their children to be proficient in English as one of the world’s most spoken languages.

Aware of its importance, some schools, including pre-schools, provide English programs in English for young learners. Some adopt “international” curriculum introduced by education institutions like Cambridge International and International Baccalauriette. Other schools develop their own curriculum and become bilingual schools.

In Indonesia, the latest research from the International Schools Consultancy Group showed the number of international schools reached 195 in 2018, up from 192 in 2017. In 2017, the consultancy group said Indonesia had the largest number of international schools in Southeast Asia, followed by Thailand with 181, Malaysia 170, Cambodia 114, Vietnam 111 and Singapore 110.

Bilingual myths and debunking them

With the increasing use of English in international schools in Indonesia, some parents are concerned that children who can speak more than one language will actually have trouble acquiring language, making them unable to speak either language properly. Another concern is based on the belief that bilingual children will always mix languages.

Language specialist Francois Grosjean argues those fears are just myths. He has debunked these bilingual myths. So far, his theories based on research on bilingualism have proven that:

Bilingualism will not delay children’s language acquisition

Bilingual children have to deal with two or more languages. However, they have the same skill to acquire new languages with children that can only speak in one language. The theory argues that the language spoken in the family context will not cause any negative effect towards the children’s second language. In fact, the language enriches the children’s process in learning languages, as they can still communicate with anyone who doesn’t speak the second language.

Bilingual children do not always mix languages

Children will quickly learn to speak in one language to people who do not understand English, such as to their caretaker and grandparents. Children will also “make an effort to speak only one language if they feel it is vital for communication”.

Learning English: later or now?

Grosjean calls the process of language acquisition of a second language - after a child has acquired their mother tongue -sequential or successive. Bilingualism expert Josiane F. Hamers describes Grosjean’s method as the consecutive way of acquiring a second language.

Parents participating in my research interviews are divided into two camps on when a child should start learning a second language.

Most parents in my research agree that the successive or consecutive way is the best method because it gives children the chance to learn their mother tongue first. They believe that acquiring their mother tongue well before learning a foreign language is considered as the best practice as they will understand the culture of the first language.

For these parents, the right time for the children to learn another language is after they get enough exposure of Indonesian language as their mother tongue. The parents agree that four years old is the ideal age for children to learn a second language.

However, some other parents consider that learning English can be done since early years. They believe that children can acquire two languages or more at the same time from the very beginning, a skill Grosjean describes as simultaneous bilingualism.

Both perspectives show that children can acquire a second language, both simultaneously and successively. It is interesting to note that both camps are not worried that learning second language at schools will result in first language loss.

They believe once they are out of the school context, their children will still use Indonesian language, as their dominant language, especially in the family and social contexts.

People can lose the ability to speak a language only after they don’t speak the language frequently. It will not happen to these children, as they still speak Indonesian language after school.

Therefore, it is important to encourage children to learn English as long as they already master their mother tongue. Once their mother tongue is acquired, concerns on first language loss and delay in language development will no longer be relevant.