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English focus has youngsters studying abroad, schools boosting curriculums

TOKYO >> Japanese children are studying abroad at younger ages, due partly to growing interest in English education, with some parents accompanying their children on their overseas stays.

Most study programs last several weeks. These opportunities usually involve parents taking their children abroad. Other programs have elementary and junior-high students going overseas in groups during summer vacation.

Meanwhile, English will be added to elementary-school curriculums next year, and university entrance examinations will be altered to include English proficiency. The changes are drawing the attention of parents of even the youngest children.

“I’ll study abroad with my son. If he enjoys staying there, I want to go there with him again,” said a 34-year-old homemaker from Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, holding her 10-month-old son in her arms.

She was among 10 pairs of parents and children, ages 2 months to 5 years, who attended a meeting by the Ryugaku Information Center, which facilitates overseas study. At the meeting, families learned that the cost for a parent and child to travel to the Philippine resort island of Cebu and stay for two weeks of lessons is about 250,000 yen (about $2,370) to 350,000 yen ($3,320), excluding airfare and other costs.

The center said 242 families with children ages 15 and younger, including preschoolers, participated in the program last year. That was about triple the figure in 2017, and the number is expected to exceed 300 this year.

“Some schools teach English to children less than a year old,” said Tatsuhiko Hoshino, executive secretary of the Japan Association of Overseas Studies, which comprises 66 business operators that provide study-abroad services.

The recent trend comes against a backdrop of educational reform emphasizing English, which will become an official subject in the fifth grade during the 2020 school year.

In 2021, new university admissions exams will include tests in listening, speaking, reading and writing in English.

But experts are divided over whether children should be taught English at such a young age.

“Learning English earlier is said to improve children’s English pronunciation, but children can significantly improve their pronunciation even from junior high school on,” said Nobuko Uchida, a professor of developmental psychology at International Pacific University. “It’s important to first develop the ability to think in one’s native language and the habit of learning by oneself.”

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