The debate over age from which to learn English in Japan

Have you ever written an essay, gotten to the end and thought, no wait, I’m wrong, and then gone ahead and rewritten it to say the exact opposite opinion? I have. But strangely it didn’t take me that long to fix, it was just a different interpretation of the facts that I had presented, only it took me a while to realise.

You know what that essay was about? The age from which English should be taught in Japan.

People have an image of children picking up languages much better than adults. While it’s true (at least anecdotally) that children pick up pronunciation fast, they can pick up the language rather quickly, given enough time and exposure. But does this mean that adults can’t pick up a second language after a certain age? No.

The critical period hypothesis states that after a certain age, humans lack the ability to pick up a second language to fluency level. This is complete bullshit.

There have been empirical studies that have shown adults with an age of onset (age they started learning a second language) of over 20 being indistinguishable from native speakers. I’ve even seen in with my own two eyes on more than one occasion.

Adults learn faster than children. By the time we’re in our late teens, most of us understand how we learn, and are able to pick up difficult things quicker than children would be able to. People forget that children have the advantage of time on their hands.

Given the right environment, and the right amount of motivation, languages can be learnt rather quickly, say to fluency in less than a year.

Why force children to learn English at such a young age in Japan? It’s almost impossible to create the right environment (if you can, by all means do it), and the current way of teaching is rather counterproductive as it is demotivating.

Why not start their English education at say 17 or 18 with an intensive course, and make it optional at that? Perhaps make it possible for those who want to learn at a younger age to do so, but don’t make it a requirement.

Instead, use that dedicated class time to allow students to explore their interests about the world. By the age of 17 or 18, they’d probably be curious about the world naturally, which only adds to their motivation.

At least that’s the conclusion I came to, and I’ve stuck with that opinion ever since. What do you think?

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