Why have they forgotten their English?

In the previous article, “Oh No, my Child’s Forgotten English”, we pointed that many parents are being deeply disappointed that their children are forgetting what they learned and we made some suggestions to both parents and schools to help avoid that but…
Why do we forget? How does it happen? Naturally, when we talk about forgetting, we’re talking about memory. As I was developing Aiwin‘s curriculum, I decided to do intensive research on memory, “why” and “how” we remember things. The reason that I wanted to delve into how the brain works and specifically remembers is that it’s crucial for successful teaching and of course learning. When we teach, we give new information to, in our case, little children and they choose to keep it…or not! As an educator, the part I’m obviously interested in is when they choose to keep it as opposed to choosing to throw it out the brain’s window.

How does memory work?

First, let’s take a look at the mechanism of how we collect information. We collect information with our senses. We see, we hear, we feel, we touch and we taste. When it comes to memory though, it seems that there are two senses that work side by side with memory, which are the eyes and ears.
There are roughly three stages for memory: Immediate memory, working memory and long-term memory. Immediate memory lasts literacy a couple of seconds, working memory can hold on to details for a limited amount of time before it either transfers them to the long-term memory or dumps them out. In the case of teaching children, specifically English learners, it’s quite challenging for teachers to get the children to pass the information from their immediate memory to their working memory, and twice as challenging to get them to store the information in their long-term memory.

boredWhat do children need to transfer the teacher’s input from their immediate memory to working memory?

The answer is…interest. The children have to be interested in what they see and hear in order for them to hold on to it for a while. If they’re not interested, they’re not paying attention. That is as true for children as it is for adults. Try to sit in a lecture and listen to someone ramble on for 2 hours about something you have no interest in whatsoever. It’s excruciating. Adults though have more control, and the brain can find many ways to help them retain the information they see and hear. A teen with no interest in math can still force himself to pay attention in the classroom if his dad promises to buy him his dream skateboard at the end of the month, sometimes it works, others it doesn’t, but that’s a different story and beyond the scope of this article. With very young children however, things are far more complicated and the incentives are very different. The teacher has to understand that very well before walking into a classroom full of toddlers or preschoolers. The children’s brain is very difficult to trick. You can’t bluff with a child, you’ll get caught :)

What do children need to transfer the teacher’s input from their working memory to their long-term memory?

Strong emotions. Again, that also applies to adults. If I ask you now “where were you when 9/11 happened?” You will most probably remember because of the emotional element. You probably remember your husband’s face expressions during your child’s birth. That’s essential to store information in our long-term memory. That’s what sets one teacher apart from a bunch of other teachers, it’s his or her ability to help the child transport information from the working memory category to the long-term category. Repetition alone is not sufficient and many Japanese learners of English learned that lesson the hard way. Rote learning or memorization based on repetition only never works. I have seen hundreds of Japanese students who tried to memorize the dictionary and might have succeeded but eventually forgot it all. Why? Because the interest is not there and the emotional connection is not there either. The first thing I used to do with my students is to help them see the connection between their English education and their career success. Most of them are motivated by that, even emotional about it especially if they are not very pleased with their current situation.
Once again, unfortunately, children are stimulated by different factors. Imagine a teacher talking to a kindergartner about the importance of having a great career! For teachers to help the children learn, they have to enter their world, a world that is governed by different rules. In Robbin William’s Hook, Peter pan could never fly until he remembered the kid in him, and the teacher can never teach a child until he or she understands what it means to be a child.

If you like this article, please like, share or comment. We appreciate your interest in the discussion and looking forward to hearing your opinion.

Aiwin International School

Oh no! My child’s forgotten English!

My child's forgotten English!It’s something that all Japanese parent dread right? It’s a nightmare isn’t it? You invest a little fortune in your child’s English education only to find out a few years later that the only thing they (your children) still remember is the A, B, C, maybe how to greet people, introduce themselves and words you can learn within an hour as an adult.
While some schools bear the burden of responsibility, the parents have a very important role to play in their children’s English education after graduating from international kindergartens. First, I will talk about what the parents can do to help and then touch on the steps that international schools have to take to provide the children with the best opportunity to retain their English progress and even build upon it in the future.

1-The Parents

  • Make a clear Choice: International School or Eikaiwa?

    There seems to be some confusion between the two. The fact that a school hires English teachers who speak English with the children does not make it “international”, it makes it an “Eikaiwa” school. International schools do not teach English, they teach IN English. Eikaiwa schools only teach the language. Most of the activities they use are language activities aiming to develop the language skills of the children. International schools on the other hand use a variety of activities and resources aiming to develop the physical, cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional skills of the children while communicating in English as the ONLY language. As parents, you have to make that choice. Beware of Eikaiwa schools misusing the term “international”. I believe the children stand a better chance remembering English when they use it in everyday life situations naturally as they grow and develop in a safe environment.

  • Don’t pressure your child.

    They are just children. They don’t know how desperate YOU are for it. They also don’t know how much it costs. If you put too much pressure on your children, they will hate the language for life. The more YOU want it, the less THEY do. Children learn pretty much everything through play. So the best way to teach a child anything is to allow them to play with a purpose in a structured environment. Most importantly, they learn by interacting with someone who knows a little bit more than they do. I contend that Einstein’s older sister is behind his genius. It’s said that he used to spend days and days playing ONLY with his slightly older sister who would’ve presented his brain with the right level of challenge to grow. Let your child play and enjoy learning without worrying about the language, and you’ll see it’s only a matter of time before he falls in love with it.

  • Provide the tools and environment for continuous development after graduation.

    While it would be very helpful for your child to attend regular ESL classes to continue practicing the language he naturally picked up during the early years, it is not a MUST. You could buy English picture books and DVDs for them. It’s a known fact that a rich vocabulary is key to fluency. Reading is crucial for children to develop and enrich the vocabulary. Listening on the other hand is key for good pronunciation. Good readers are good writers and good listeners are good speakers.

2-International schools

  • English Only policy at school.

    The school is the only place for the children to use English. There are three elements that draw that line between Japanese and English for them and are as follows: The place, the time and the people. Simply put, the children should be very clear that, for example, “at Aiwin International School (place), between 08:00 and 18:00 (time), the teachers, the principal and all the staff (the people) speak to me in English”. If the teachers start to speak Japanese in random situations during the day, that line (we mentioned above) gets very blurry, and they will get mixed up.

  • Train the ears.

    Whether we like it or not, we are educating ESL children. Their mother tongue is often Japanese and have had no or very little exposure to the sounds of English. We all know the first 2 years are crucial for language development. What that means is that your literacy program needs to compensate for that lack of exposure by integrating a solid phonological awareness training. That is essential to build a strong foundation in reading. As I said before, reading leads to fluency.

Teaching Japanese babies and toddlers in English: is it harmful?

I have been involved in international education for several years and one of the greatest concerns that I have seen and heard about from Japanese parents is “would learning English damage or impact my child’s first language development?” It’s definitely a very valid, even controversial question. However, for Japanese parents living in Japan concerned about their children’s Japanese language skills, the answer is very simple: No.

Japanese and EnglishLearning English or in English will not damage or harm their Japanese language skills provided that you speak with them in Japanese at home, which is the case, 99.99 % of the time. As long as you are spending some time talking or playing with your children after school and over the weekend, they will perfectly be able to master 2 and even 3 languages easily during their early years. The children’s brain is tremendously flexible and the speed and capacity in which it operates is phenomenal. The sad thing is that this remarkable and almost superhuman ability children have begins to deteriorate gradually as they grow older. Between the age of 0-2, your child is not really learning a second language as a foreign language, he or she’s learning it as their first language.

For us adults and a bit older children, a house is “a house” in English and “ie” in Japanese, for babies and toddlers, a house is an object with two different names. Their incredible brain is able to store twice and three times the amount of information we can store as adults.

I have a bilingual 3-year-old daughter born in Australia and been living in Japan since the age of 1. We sent her to a Japanese day care when we arrived in Japan for over 2 years. My wife and I agreed that we would only speak with her in English at home. Now, almost 3 years later, she’s purely a bilingual, and knows the difference between the two languages quite well. There was no confusion for her because the two languages were spoken by different people in separate places. As long as you draw that clear line between the two languages, your children are completely safe. When at home, speak with them in Japanese and Japanese only. When at school, demand that the teachers speak with them in English and English only. It would be perfectly fine for you to sing a song or read a story for them in English but if they start talking to you in English, respond in Japanese and stick to it. They will soon understand that they can’t use this language with you at home, and even realize it’s inappropriate.

Being bilingual in Japan is no longer an option. The country is increasingly becoming more and more dependent on international consumers. What this means is that speaking Japanese only will only lead to a shrinking weaker economy in a more globalized competitive world. Much money has been spent on English learning by the government, private corporations and parents, and unfortunately, the results have not been very impressive. Providing English education to your babies and toddlers is a little window of opportunity when you could pass on to them one of the greatest gifts of all, the ability to communicate worldwide, in and out of Japan.

Aiwin International School