An American English teacher tells a class of 5-year-old Japanese children, each with a whiteboard and pen in hand: “Let’s write down the sentence, ‘I am hot.’ “
“Chris, put a space between ‘am’ and ‘hot’,” the teacher tells a boy, who follows the teacher’s advice.
“Look, I’m done!” the boy cheerily says, pointing at his whiteboard with the correct sentence on it.
The class, held completely in English with a native English teacher, appears to be a scene from an international school. But the children are all Japanese and engaged in an English immersion class at private MeySen Kindergarten in Sendai.
Over the past decade or so, some schools in Japan — most of them junior high and high schools — have been adopting programs in which students are “immersed” in an English-speaking environment. The classes don’t apply just to English lessons, but to other subjects, including mathematics and science. All are held in English to help students acquire the language.
Parents are spending more on English lessons for children as the classes are introduced at public elementary schools and as the importance of English as a business language is promoted in today’s increasingly globalized environment.
In a 2011 survey by Kao Corp. on 300 mothers with children below age 9, English or English conversation came first on a list of extracurricular studies they wanted their children to experience, especially in preschool.
Still, an English immersion program like the one at MeySen is rare at the kindergarten level because it requires resources and personnel, said Yohei Arakawa, an associate professor of applied cognitive linguistics at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.
The kindergarten for 3- to 5-year-olds has two campuses, each within a short distance of each other and standing in a vast 33,000-sq.-meter area in the suburbs of Sendai.
When the children enter the English immersion program for 4- and 5-year-olds, they are given English names, like Chris and Linda, that they use instead of their Japanese names throughout the two-year course.
During the day, the children receive all of their lessons in English, except for one 40-minute class in Japanese. Out of the 1,350 children at the school, 128 take part in the immersion program, which started in 2006.
The immersion classes use English learning materials including textbooks, CDs and DVDs specifically developed for the school that have been adopted by roughly 400 other schools in 16 countries, including the United States and South Korea, teachers say.
The children are advised to put in some time every day at home learning with the CDs and DVDs.
“We try to develop the children’s speaking, listening and writing abilities simultaneously,” said Principal Daniel Fanger, adding that in a full immersion setting, the children “learn English naturally — in the same way they learn their native tongue from their parents.”
“They are acquiring it as a skill. By repeating it over and over again every day, the children don’t need to think anymore, and English words come out automatically,” said Timothy Broman, curriculum coordinator. The children learn English “as if they were learning a sport,” he said.
Experts are mixed in their views on when the most opportune time for starting immersion is and what its effects are on the development of a child’s linguistic capabilities in their mother tongue.
Some scholars argue that it is too early to teach English to Japanese children under 6 because their native capabilities are still in the developmental stage and could be negatively affected by learning a second language.
Others say it’s practical to learn two languages simultaneously at kindergarten age. Research shows that acquiring a second language “will not have a negative effect on the first language,” said Noriaki Yusa, professor of linguistics at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University.
However, Yusa said that a lot is still left unexplained as to what age is best for learning a second language. “It’s difficult to say, because the critical period depends on which field you’re looking at: be it syntax, semantics, or phonology,” he said.
“MeySen’s program is designed in such a way so that the children who (graduate and) go to local Japanese schools become bilingual by the time they are 12 years old,” Fanger said.
Children who graduate from the immersion class are advised to attend an after-school English program at MeySen, and most attend the program at least three days a week, he said.
Arakawa of the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies points out that continuous followup will be essential for an English immersion program to have positive effects on the young.
“It’s a matter of ‘bridging.’ A tremendous amount of followup is needed for students to extend their English ability after they graduate from (immersion) kindergarten and then go on to elementary school,” Arakawa said.
“Even if children have acquired phonics, a fair amount of vocabulary and some grammatical rules, it would be difficult for them to develop their language capabilities further unless they get continuous input,” he added.
Yusa agrees. “It has not been unequivocally confirmed that an English immersion experience at the kindergarten level is advantageous for people when they become adults,”he said, adding that “abundant and continuous input and output of English are necessary to acquire the language.”