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College of Education and Human Development at The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

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International Perspectives

UTSA researcher studies long-term effectiveness of early English instruction in Taiwan

Conventional wisdom suggests that the earlier a child begins instruction in a foreign language, the more proficient that child will be in the long run. Becky Huang, assistant professor of Bicultural- Bilingual Studies in the College of Education and Human Development at UTSA, recently put that notion to the test in her hometown of Taipei, Taiwan.

When Huang was growing up in Taiwan, English-as-a-foreign-language (EFL) instruction was not offered in public schools until middle school. Instead of waiting until middle school, Huang’s parents hired private tutors to teach her English as a child. That attitude isn’t uncommon. With more than 1 billion English speakers around the world, it isn’t surprising that more and more parents are trying to make sure their children begin learning the language even earlier.

In Taiwan, English-only immersion preschools and kindergartens sprang up so rapidly in the late ‘90s that its Ministry of Education passed strict regulations on them, including outright banning all-day English programs for preschool children, amidst concerns with quality and potential negative effects on child development. In spite of this, EFL instruction remains a booming, multimillion-dollar industry in many countries around the world, including Taiwan.

“English is becoming the language of global commerce, and many international parents want to ensure that their children learn it early so they don’t get left behind,” said Huang. “I wanted to know how much of a difference immersing children in English-only instruction before elementary school actually makes in the students’ long-term English proficiencies.”

Huang used a combination of literacy and grammar tests and surveys to compare the proficiencies 97 Taiwanese public high school students studied in three separate groups. All students spoke a Chinese language as their first language and learned English as a foreign language either before or during elementary school. One group attended English-only kindergartens, another group received weekly EFL instruction in kindergarten but spoke primarily Mandarin Chinese in all other subjects, and the third did not receive any EFL instruction until they entered elementary school. Huang limited her research to the public school system.

According to Huang, a majority of early EFL immersion programs are working from the notion that human language acquisition is guided by biological maturation. That is, once the human brain reaches a certain age, learning a new language becomes difficult due to loss of brain plasticity. Huang said that very little research into EFL instruction and brain plasticity has been conducted in settings where English is taught only through formal, structured instruction. She wanted to know if the time between kindergarten and elementary school makes enough of a difference in students growing up in non-English societies to be worth the expense of early EFL instruction, especially immersion programs.

Huang found that the long-term fluency benefits to the students who attended the English-only programs during kindergarten were limited to listening comprehension by the time the students entered high school. However, these students’ reading comprehension, grammar knowledge and grades in English were on par with the other groups of students. Essentially, all 97 students were similarly skilled by the time that they hit high school regardless of the type of EFL instruction they received, if any, before entering elementary school.

Huang’s other major finding was that language exposure contributed more to the Taiwanese students’ English proficiency than the age at which they began instruction. Students who read in English, watched English television or listened to English songs had better proficiency outcomes than their peers who did not sustain regular exposure to the language.

“In truth, as it is with any language, exposure and practice are the main thing that will separate the proficiencies between these students,” said Huang. “While beginning foreign language instruction early may get students on that road, it is up to them to practice what they learn in order to become truly fluent.”


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