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What is the ‘critical period’ for language development?

When I was growing up, I had a cousin who lived in Hawaii. His western life was always interesting to me. Like many Japanese people, though, I was terrible at English. When I was in junior high school and high school I hated learning English; but because of my attraction to my cousin’s life I wanted to go to America and finally, at the age of 23, I did. I ended up living and studying there for the next nine years. In the beginning, I was completely immersed in English and could not speak or understand anything. It was extremely difficult. After about two years, I learned to communicate but it was still really hard. Eventually, after nine years, I achieved some fluency. When I returned to Tokyo, to work as a professional illustrator, I was once again immersed in Japanese and over the next six years, or so, I slowly lost my fluency. Then I married my Canadian wife, Anne. English is our language of communication and as a result, I have been using it for more than 30 years. People may think I am fluent but I still find myself struggling. It has to be because I started learning as an adult.

 

Imagine our children in 20 years

English is necessary for childhood education but many people in Japan do not realize how much exposure they actually need. English study has finally been introduced to our 5th and 6th grades in elementary school, but its only once a week. It’s not until Junior high school that English is taught as a subject but its only few times a week. Children growing up with this brief exposure and entering the global work force of the future will face the same struggles that I did. Imagine our children in 20 years, about to graduate from a university, looking for jobs. Imagine also what our economy might be like at that time. In the early nineties, the Bubble burst putting us into a 20-year deflation. Large and small companies are relocating their manufacturing overseas. Global trade is getting more competitive. The value of goods went down but the Japanese yen went up at a historical rate. The burden of supporting our older generation will fall on our children. Due to the advancement of technology, sharing of information is now global. In 20 years, our children will be facing quite a different world from what is going on now.

 

People who can communicate across cultures!

Considering the economic conditions of the future, what will companies look for in employees? They will be looking for people who have the ability to negotiate and to solve problems. How do we develop and nurture children to grow into such people? Are these people grown from children who can memorize things well and get high scores on tests, or from children who encounter problems, and have the resources to research, solve, and prevent them? For sure, companies will be looking for the latter. How about people who can communicate across cultures? There are more bilinguals and multi-linguals than monolinguals in the world, making the monolingual individual a minority. Moreover, English has been adopted as an official language by 55 countries, and is becoming a world business standard. If our children have the ability to speak English, they can exchange their ideas and thoughts with people from all over the world and secure a place for themselves in the global generation to come.

 

Modern day communicators!

But how do we raise our children to be modern day communicators? First, we have to realize that there is a critical time period for the development of language. Second, advances in neurological understanding of young children shows that the development of language is strongly connected with infancy. In the first year of a baby’s life, an amazing thing happens in the baby’s brain. Babies take (what scientists call) statistics on the sounds they hear. By taking statistics of sounds, they are preparing to learn a language in the environment they have to survive in. By the time they enter elementary school at age of six or seven, they’ve taken enough statistics to learn their language but if they have only heard their native tongue, they have become culture-bound to their native language since they do not have statistics on other languages. This is why it was so difficult for me, as an adult, to learn English. The research is clear that the critical period for development of language is between infancy (zero) to seven years of age. From seven years of age onward, our ability to learn a language declines quickly and from 12 years of age onward, our ability to learn language easily is nearly gone. Unfortunately for Japan, this is the time that English instruction is just starting in Elementary schools.

 

English Oasis

Clearly, it’s necessary to put children in an English immersion environment, every day of the week, during the “critical period”, if you want them to be bilingual. I have been lucky in my life to have first hand experience of this through observation of my own children. We started Kidschool as an ‘English oasis’ in our home and gave our children English immersion from a very young age. They learned English naturally and effectively and are on their way to becoming bilingual, global citizens of the future. Kidschool is that ‘English oasis’ in Japan, for your child.

 

 

 

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