More and more parents are interested in having their children start studying English even before they turn 1, with an eye on giving them an advantage in their future careers.

At S&S International School, an English school for infants in Yokohama, 2-year-olds were fluently pronouncing the English word “carbon” as a native English instructor showed them chemical symbols.

In the education program targeting children aged up to about 5, teachers get the young children to read English words repeatedly and help them strengthen their writing skills and acquire the ability to think in English.

About 30 percent of those enrolled in the program study at the school instead of going to kindergartens or nursery schools, studying about four hours a day.

The program covers a wide range of challenging and complicated subjects for children, including Darwin’s theory of evolution, Egyptian civilization, fractions and DNA.

“The purpose of mastering English is to acquire the means of absorbing knowledge,” said Kazuko Nakamura, who runs the program. “The subjects may be difficult for the children, but we help them understand the subjects through English if only a little and grow the bud of their curiosity.”

Such English programs for infants have become popular with parents apparently considering it crucial for their children to master the language when companies are increasingly placing significant emphasis on English skills upon hiring new graduates or promoting their employees.

A housewife in Tokyo said, “I want my kids to be exposed to and feel familiar with English before they grow up and nurture a negative feeling against the language.”

In response to the rising demand from parents, many publishers have also released English educational materials for infants.

Obunsha Co., a Tokyo-based publishing firm, launched in May a set of materials called Eigo de Asobo (Let’s Play in English) Planet for children up to the age of 6, priced at ¥89,250.

The materials, in which popular characters from “Eigo de Asobo,” a children’s show aired on NHK, appear, include a DVD, a music CD, a picture book and a pen that reads English words if the book is traced with the pen.

Benesse Corp. also added English materials for babies under the age of 1 to its Worldwide Kids lineup in April.

The Okayama-based educational services company said that the materials are designed to help children understand particular English pronunciations that are believed to be hard for Japanese to master.

The complete series for children aged from 6 months to 6 years old is priced at ¥220,500.

The company is also running English-language classes across Japan and has seen a 50 percent yearly surge in the number of students enrolled thanks to the popularity of its renewed program for infants.

Against such a backdrop, the number of grade school children who applied for the English proficiency tests organized by the Eiken Foundation of Japan from April 2012 through March 2013 topped 200,000, a 1.8-fold rise from the level a decade ago.

Among the applicants, children under 5 totaled 2,670, a 6.4-fold jump, in stark contrast with the numbers of junior high and high school applicants, which have remained almost unchanged during the 10-year period.

“The number of younger applicants began increasing more than 10 years ago and the pace especially accelerated two years ago when foreign-language activity became compulsory at elementary school,” an official of the association said. “We believe this trend will likely continue for a while.”

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