In modern China, and also around the world, there is a wave of educational policies mandating an early start on learning English as a foreign language (EFL) in order to better prepare children for the globalized world. What makes China different in this wave is that, while the government encourages an earlier start on EFL, it also sets a ban on public elementary schools going too early in order to “protect” children’s development of their native language and prohibits English being taught before third grade.
The general public think otherwise, however, which has created an unprecedented passion in society to have children starting EFL very early on at private institutions:
- ‘Earlier is better’. Chinese parents believe early exposure to English will help children learn the language better, and want their children to master the language before hitting the critical period;
- Instrumental motivation. Competence in English is considered to be a vital component of an individual’s overall competence and competitiveness, and to have an impact on their future prospect in Chinese society;
- Intrinsic motivation. As children find it more interesting to use English outside traditional classrooms, there is an increasing demand for EFL channels that provide authentic input through interactions with native speakers of English.
Chen et al. performed a study with 892 children in China to explore the impact of early childhood EFL on later academic achievement in elementary school. In order to eliminate selection bias, they employed propensity score matching (PSM) and coarsened exact matching (CEM) techniques to generate balanced samples based on children’s demographic, parent-child interactional and socio-economic characteristics. Results showed that learning English in early childhood boosted children’s language competence in English and interestingly, in Chinese as well, demonstrating that learning a second language early does not have negative effects on the development of a child’s native language. Children who received earlier EFL also have a more positive attitude towards learning English. The researchers take this as evidence to suggest that quality early English learning programs should be launched nationwide instead of delaying the learning of English. Parents should also provide a rich literacy environment at home to help children develop a genuine interest in English learning and maintain a high level of motivation in children at a very young age.
Chen, S., Zhao, J., de Ruiter, L., Zhou, J., & Huang, J. (2022). A burden or a boost: The impact of early childhood English learning experience on lower elementary English and Chinese achievement. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 25(4), 1212 – 1229. https://doi.org/10.1080/13670050.2020.1749230