Saturday, April 15, 2006

Early English

Oranckay turned me on to this study supposedly showing that Korean kids who get early English education are less creative than kids who only learn the mother tongue.

I myself am more than a bit wary of the way Koreans push English (and other subjects) on their children at very young ages, but the study raises some red flags.

The report does not give a lot of details on how the study was conducted, but basically they compared two groups of children: one group that had attended for at least a year and a half a day care center/pre-school which taught English, and a second group who did not receive English education.

The groups of  children were shown a picture and asked to describe it. The English educated children could provide no more than 2 answers/responses, while the non-English kids provided as many as 11. Next, the children were asked to draw freely and the English educated children just drew simple pictures while the non-English children drew elaborate pictures of ponds with flowers and trees.

I know it's a bit rash to say this without seeing more details on how the study was conducted, but I smell 'agenda' here. What motivated them to start this study in the first place? Did they think the results could go either way initially? Is there any evidence that children who get early English education are failing later in life in some way?  It just seems  a little out of the blue to single out early English education for this kind of study. Why not study children who are forced to study ANYTHING intensively at very young ages rather than just being allowed to play? Might it be that this same kind of study would show similar results whether the students had been studying math, Chinese characters, or anything else? Isn't the main issue here most likely the crime of depriving children from just being free to creatively play on their own (like normal children)?

So when agenda comes into research, it's scary how easy you can get the results that you want. You can get choosy with your study subjects (find reasons to exclude those who probably won't give you the results you want), you can give the group you want to succeed some subtle encouragements ("Is that all you want to draw? Are you sure you don't want to draw some more things?") that you don't give to the other group. You can choose tasks that you know one group already does well (most likely these 'non-
English' kids were doing a lot of drawing already. They had to be doing something in the pre-school all day if they weren't practicing English).

I suspect the way the research was set up was based on activities that the non-English students were already very familiar with and knew what was expected.

When a study produces shocking results like this study, you need to be skeptical and look for flaws (if not outright fraud). The English speaking children produced 2 responses to the drawing as opposed to 11 from the Korean-only kids. That gap is just too big to be believable. It is extremely rare for this kind of study to find that kind of gap between two groups with only one differing variable of this magnitude. It's like finding that babies who listen to Mozart have double the IQs of babies that grow up listening to country music (in reality, that difference would probably only result in an IQ difference of 20% and a tendency to vote Republican later in life, based on my personal observations).

By the way, is there something special about the number '11' in Korea? It seems like that number has been popping up a lot lately in questionable/fraudulent research...

I do know a guy how has a guitar amplifier that goes up to 11 though. Too bitchin...

What real research in this field has shown repeatedly for decades is that children learning a second language for a few hours a day doesn't have much of a lasting impact in any way (good or bad). Unless children can get true immersion in a second language, a few hours a day is not enough for them to truly acquire the language like a native speaker. Yes, children can learn languages better than adults, but only if they are in the right kind of environment.

So what is this possible 'agenda' of the researchers that I am referring to? It's the agenda of a group of scholars and nationalists who fear that English is destroying their pure Korean culture. They have some good arguments, and I agree that Korea goes overboard with English education, but from what I've seen they use mostly fear tactics based on questionable research and wild speculation rather than facts. It's just like the 'English-only' crowd back in the States. Behind a few good arguments is an underlying motivation based on xenophobia and racism.

Finally, despite my suspicions that this study is unreliable, I don't think it is a good idea to teach Korean children English unless the parents know what the hell they are doing. Too often it's just a lot of wasted time and, as I mentioned earlier, kids should be allowed to be kids and have time to play. I have also heard of many Koreans who did not study English as children but became interested in English in middle school or high school and quickly caught up (and passed) their peers who were drilled in English since they were 5. Forcing children to study anything often turns out to be counter-productive in the long run.

Comments on original post

Great post. I remember a couple of studys I read for my M.A. that basically said the same thing you did in the last paragraph regarding older children starting later but surpassing those who had started years earlier at a much younger age.

Posted by: EFL Geek | April 15, 2006 at 04:48 AM

How uncanny.... why only today I was discussing what research the learned doctor might be working on now!

Posted by: Leone | April 15, 2006 at 05:51 AM

Hmm...I was going to say that it's not the subject matter, but rather the form of instruction (i.e. teaching style) that chokes creativity out of the children. But, the control group was 5-year-olds who had also been enrolled in a formal educational institute for at least 1.5 years and the video apparently shows the children in the English school doing "regular" activities that most children do except in English. I find it plausible that forcing the children to use a second language may stunt the development of their creative mind. However, I'd be curious to see if there are any long-term side-effects (I doubt it)...that is, before the Korean educational system makes the question totally moot. In fairness to the article, the reporter does qualify his conclusion to "지나친 조기 교육."

Posted by: Paul | April 15, 2006 at 07:00 AM

Good comment. I wonder if the English group has been conditioned to give short responses in the kinds of tasks used in the study, as they are used to doing them in a second language that they haven't mastered. Even when going back to Korean, they still might think those kinds short responses are expected from people at their school. Anyway, I'm still suspicious of the study design. I've seen too many researchers here approach a study in a way guaranteed to get the results that matches their predisposed expectations. It's much more common than people realize.

Posted by: partypooper | April 15, 2006 at 04:35 PM

I wonder if they based their study on this one:

Westerners and Easterners see the world differently

Chinese and American people see the world differently – literally. While Americans focus on the central objects of photographs, Chinese individuals pay more attention to the image as a whole, according to psychologists at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, US.

Rest of article here:

Did they ask the questions or give the students (the ones that had English ed) instructions in English or Korean? I would think if it was done in English, they would have limited vocabulary which would be reflected in their answers and drawings.

Posted by: Cynthia | April 15, 2006 at 10:29 PM

Interesting article: this part seemed particularly relevant:

"Psychologists watching American and Japanese families playing with toys have also noted this difference. “An American mother will say: ‘Look Billy, a truck. It’s shiny and has wheels.’ The focus is on the object,” explains Nisbett. By contrast, Japanese mothers stress context saying things like, “I push the truck to you and you push it to me. When you throw it at the wall, the wall says ‘ouch’."

Nisbett also cites language development in the cultures. “To Westerners it seems obvious that babies learn nouns more easily. But while this is the case in the West, studies show that Korean and Chinese children pick up verbs – which relate objects to each other"

If the teachers of the children were westerners, perhaps this was how the kids were trained to respond when shown pictures . Even if the teachers were Koreans, when teaching a second language one might focus more on the central object (as this is the target vocabulary word to be learned) and ignore anything else in the picture. For drawing, this overt focus on the target object could also condition the children to focus on drawing one object, rather than a picture with many objects.

I'd like to see how the English taught kids would do if they observed even one other child giving the 'creative response' that the researchers were looking for. I'd bet after seeing this example, these kids would have no trouble responding at length.

Posted by: partypooper | April 15, 2006 at 11:51 PM


I haven't followed the above link, but I have Nesbitt's book, "The Geography of Thought." Interesting and readable, though perhaps a bit too general and fuzzy in its conclusions. I think the book makes plausible claims, but they aren't surprising: in philo & religious studies, people have for years focused on how linguistic constructions act as a filter for perceptions and can govern which concepts we deem relevant to living.

Probably the most important psych term in Nesbitt's book is "field dependence," which refers to whether or not you need to perceive an object PLUS its background in order to make a determination about the object in question (how big it is, whether it's completely vertical, etc.). Westerners tend not to have very high field dependence, whereas many East Asians do. There are advantages and disadvantages to both styles of perception, Nesbitt says. Nesbitt also focuses on East-West bicultural people and how they perceive the world.

I'd recommend the book. It's available in Korea.


Posted by: Kevin Kim | April 16, 2006 at 08:26 PM

pardon me for saying this, but that kind of study is a big load of crap. kids are kids, their young brain absorbs just about anything that are taught (or not taught) to them like a sponge. that said, a kid's ability is only as good as the quality and amount of information that's given to him. garbage in, garbage out. anyone who refutes such natural law must have something else in mind.

Posted by: littlebrownasian | April 16, 2006 at 08:45 PM

Maybe they forced the English-learning kids to answer in English. :-)

Posted by: Iceberg | April 17, 2006 at 06:38 AM

Or maybe it's just the fact that kids who tend to get shoved into hakwons at an early age -- math hakwons, science hakwons, Chinese or English hakwons -- don't get enough time to play and goof off like kids need to do. It might not be that it's the *subject* of study that matters... ie. if this study were to be creditable, which, yes, is questionable, the correlation might not equal causality.

And I'd suppose that with the widespread obsession with English specifically, most kids who do get hakwonized get English lessons, and that kids who have *no* English probably mostly don't go to hakwons in general. (ie for other subjects). There sample group is probably not characterized by what they think it is -- they're saying, "It's kids who learn English!" when in fact it's probably just kids who go to hakwons and have much less free time than other kids. A correlation that could be studied more closely is probably being hijacked by culturally-rooted attitudes, such as the anxiety about people remaining "Korean" while having foreign languages, customs, ideas, and values introduced to them at an early age.

My 2 cents, anyway.

Posted by: gordsellar | April 20, 2006 at 11:34 PM

Gord, my sentiments exactly.

Posted by: partypooper | April 22, 2006 at 04:40 AM

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