Private English schools catering to children are thriving, reflecting a growing number of parents, especially younger mothers, who want their kids to start learning the language at an early age.

The boom is supported by government moves to introduce English classes in elementary schools.

Benesse Corp., a major education service company based in Okayama Prefecture, launched an English-language program for children aged between 4 and 12 in 2000.

The company started with two classes but now has 260 throughout the country with a total of 4,600 students.

The firm aims to boost the number of classes to 1,500 and the number of students to more than 30,000 by the end of fiscal 2006, a Benesse official said.

“We have decided to target children aged 4 or older who can take lessons without relying on their parents,” said Kenji Nakajima, a Benesse executive.

The classes are focused on listening. Teachers speak only English.

“Even if the children do not comprehend words, they read what is being said through teachers’ gestures and intonations,” Nakajima said.

The monthly tuition for the course targeting preschoolers is 5,250 yen plus material costs.

“We conduct classes by playing games, shopping, etc., and do not teach spelling and grammar,” he said. “More than 99 percent of the children continue to attend the classes for one year.”

According to Benesse, the preschoolers’ market was about 800 billion yen in 2002 and is growing about 4 percent every year.

The market is far bigger if mail-order English education materials, CDs, picture books and toys are included.

An official of the major retail chain Toys “R” Us-Japan Ltd. said sales of electronic toys allowing children to practice English pronunciation have increased considerably, reflecting strong interest on the part of young mothers in such toys.

The desire of parents to have their children study English at an early age is in line with government moves to foster Japanese capable of communicating in English.

Prodded by businesses whose operations are becoming more global, the government is pushing English education in elementary schools.

According to the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, more than half of Japan’s public elementary schools have begun teaching English. But there are only one or two hours worth of classes a month, and the focus is on singing English songs and playing games.

The ministry plans to increase English classroom hours and improve educational content.

Kanji Watanabe, a supervisor at the National Institute for Educational Policy Research of Japan, said that English education at elementary schools has produced “unexpected good results of making taciturn children more assertive” through participation in English games.

But Watanabe is concerned about increasing competition related to entrance examinations among younger children.

English education at elementary schools may “result in only tracing what is learned at high schools and in excessively heightening competition among parents to send their children to big-name high schools,” he said.

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