It is commonly accepted that the earlier one learns a second language the easier it is to master. But is it ever too early for children to receiving language lessons in a classroom? Many parents and educators don’t think so.
Keo Dina says she decided to send her son to a nursery school when he was just three months old because she and her husband worked full time jobs and didn’t have anyone they trusted to take care of him at home while they were at work.
Dina enrolled her son Somethea in one of Phnom Penh’s top international schools, and one of the few that offers English, Khmer and Chinese at the pre-school level. The tuition is not cheap, costing $2,000 per year, but Dina says she saw advantages in getting an early start on languages and feels the school’s international environment will impart a better understanding of different cultures.
Somethea, now two years old going on three, is already starting to speak in three languages, and often uses them interchangeably.
“I’ve noticed that he tries to speak both Khmer and English at home,” says Dina. “Sometimes I feel I don’t understand what he means as he can’t speak well yet.”
Then again, he is only two, an age when children are just beginning to put together simple sentences. And he is still four years away from the state’s mandatory age for school enrollment, and a decade ahead of the first foreign language lessons in the public school curriculum.
Sum Silen, an entrepreneur whose husband also works during the day, first sent her son to a bilingual international school when he was two. Now he is three, and has made impressive strides not only in language, but also in character, she says.
“I used to keep my son at home with the housemaid, but he wasn’t learning anything and didn’t behave well,” says Silen. “After I sent him to an international language school, which cost almost $3,000, he is well behaved and speaks to me in English. He is also smart and independent, and knows how to communicate with other kids well.”
She says learning English at an early age will give him lifelong advantages.
“He is already much more knowledgeable at his age than my generation was,” she says. “If I could turn back time I would enroll him into school even earlier because kids learn language best at an early age.”
Michael Billington, Operations & Finance Manager at Home of English, a private English-language school with two campuses in Phnom Penh, says he sees many advantages to starting children early in a structured learning environment.
“Kids at a young age are still learning different things about the world, their bodies and how to interact socially,” he says. “What we have seen is once these kids go through our pre-school they seem to learn at a much faster pace.”
Operating since 1997, Home of English provides an American-based curriculum in a student-centred program. The playschool and kindergarten programs accept children as young as two years old, with instruction in English and a Khmer program offered from age 5 and up.
“We believe in promoting critical thinking and creativity amongst our students,” says Billington. “Our playschool program is Montessori-based and incorporates learning into playing. There is a lot of learning while playing or performing activities.”
He says learning multiple languages accelerates a child’s mental development and raises them to become lifelong bilingual speakers.
“We want our students to be able to think in both languages,” he says. “By allowing that, our students can grow and expand their language abilities, and possibly extend to other languages at a young age.”