Experts predict that 3 billion people, or around half of the world’s population, will be communicating in English in 2020, and that English will continue to be the global lingua franca for at least 40 more years. The English language will remain in its dominant position in the fields of science, technology, tourism, entertainment and the media.
But while parents are acutely aware of the importance of English, the question of how to motivate children to want to learn English is remains a challenging dilemma. English professors have noted that the worst thing for parents to do would be to overly focus on test scores, as this would undoubtedly quash children’s interest in learning English. Instead, children should be allowed to learn English at their own pace.
Television presenter Yung-kang Chen and his wife have an interesting trick when it comes to selecting an English class for their children: they choose based on the volume of the laughter from the classroom. They don’t want a teacher who nags or scolds; instead, they want their children to be motivated by support and encouragement. “For example, when my son was 4 years old, he told me that he was interested in a girl in his class from overseas. I immediately taught him to say, ‘Can I hold your hand?’”
Encouraging Easy, Motivated, and Confident English Learning by Integrating English into Everyday Life
Yung-kang Chen’s wife Pei-shan Chang noted that parents in Taiwan often try to do everything for their children, which ironically often results in a reduction in learning opportunities for kids. For example, on a family trip to Tokyo Disneyland, her children wanted to buy some food that had a long line of people waiting for it. Because Yung-Kang Chen and Pei-Shan Chang were tired, they allowed their kids to get in line themselves.
Remarkably, despite the long line, the children were soon back, with the food in hand. It turned out that the kids had asked the Disneyland staff, in English, about how they should join the line. The staff member did not have very good English, and had to ask several colleagues for help. In the end, they decided to just give the kids their food first, ahead of everyone else in the line. “This was an excellent learning opportunity for them. If we’d gone with them, then the children wouldn’t have had the chance to speak English themselves!”
“It’s very important for children to enjoy the process of learning English, to feel like they’re doing well and to have confidence in themselves. The English classes need to be related to everyday life. Parents should not be greedy or have overly high expectations, because that’ll just damage the children’s confidence.”
Professor Mao-Sung Lin, Dean of the School of Foreign Languages and Cultures at Soochow University, believes that the optimal way to learn English is to integrate it into everyday life, and for children to learn by doing. Adults should not simply give children the right answers. Instead, they should offer goals and guidance to children, to help them find the answer themselves, while also giving them the opportunity to practice listening, reading, writing, and speaking in English.
English is Learned Best when Learners are Happy
More and more parents are focusing on their children’s actual English skills, instead of fixating purely on test scores. By helping their children build an interest in language learning, better English skills will come easily and naturally afterwards.
-Sunny Wu, English instructor at the Affiliated Senior High School of National Taiwan Normal University and former Visiting Scholar at the University of Florida
Andrea Hales, Director English at the British Council Taiwan, has over fifteen years of experience in teaching English in East Asia. She indicated that the period from age three to eight is the optimal time for language learning. In particular, children aged five or six have better levels of focus and enjoy playing with other children of the same age, which makes it an ideal time for learning languages through group activities. The British Council has also observed that children learn better and participate more enthusiastically when their English classes are filled with interesting activities.
According to Andrea Hales, when children are playing games, virtually all of their energy and attention will be focused on the game, which means they often unconsciously absorb the information they’re given. Even shy or unconfident children can learn through games. This reduces the aversion or anxiety some children may have towards learning, and makes them more willing to speak and interact in English, thus helping them learn the language easily and an enjoyable experience.
Sunny Wu also pointed out that many parents these days have realized that attaching too much importance to test scores, without helping children develop an interest in English, will only stifle their children’s willingness to learn. Consequently, many parents have adopted a strategy of learning with their children, such as spending five or ten minutes every day reading with their kids. The positive energy generated from such interactions makes the children more willing to learn.
When native Chinese speakers think back to how they learned Chinese, they realize that they never had to remember Chinese grammatical rules through rote memorization. Instead, they would naturally absorb the language through everyday use and practice. This fits well with the latest recommendations from experts, which is to stop seeing English as a subject to be learned and tested on, and instead integrate it into everyday life, as a tool for communication in the modern world.
(This article also appears on United Daily News)