Prague: From the mouths of babes

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Dec 8 13:29:49 UTC 2006

December 8th, 2006

>>From the mouths of babes

Experts mixed on benefits of English classes for infants

By Hilda Hoy
Staff Writer, The Prague Post
December 6th, 2006

During their first years of life, most babies are expected to do little
more than eat, sleep and fill their diapers. But, across the country,
Czech infants as young as 1 are being sent to school. At Helen Doron Early
English (HDEE) schools, a franchise with nine locations nationwide, the
emphasis is on exposing Czech tots to English, even if they can barely
speak. By hearing English from such an early age, the company says,
children can learn it as a first language, alongside Czech. "Very young
learners usually have a great sense for learning any number of languages
they are exposed to; they have a great chance to acquire English on the
same level they acquire their mother tongue," said Barbora Toenovsk,
manager of the HDEE branch in Opava, north Moravia.

The Helen Doron franchise is part of an English as a Foreign Language
(EFL) industry in this country fueled by eager Czechs with hopes that
English skills will provide advantages in business and education. As
schools compete for students, catering to a niche market parents who'll do
anything to give their little darlings an edge is a smart move, some say.
Earlier this year, Prague-based language agency Skrivnek released a study
that concluded the growth of the country's language-school industry is not
slowing down. Part of that growth, the report said, came from parents
demanding instruction for younger children. "These schools seem to be a
great idea, businesswise," said Monika Cern, an education specialist from
the Department of English and American studies at the University of
Pardubice. "The Czech Republic is quite a good place to introduce such
projects, since many parents want their children to learn English."

'A better start'

The HDEE company was founded in 1985 by British linguist and English
teacher Helen Doron. Since then, the chain has expanded to 21 countries in
Europe, Asia and the Middle East, with about 350 learning centers in
total. The franchise landed in the Czech Republic in September 2004, and
has expanded to have some 850 students on its roster. There are also plans
to open two more locations early next year, said Toenovsk. At these
centers, students aged 13 attend classes with their parents once a week,
and, next spring, classes for babies as young as three months will be
introduced. While the infant classes are the school's unique offering,
HDEE also offers lessons for children up to age 13.

Each class consists of 30 minutes of song, dance, crafting and playtime,
all conducted exclusively in English, Toenovsk said, with some but not all
of the teachers being native speakers. Parents are also given CDs of
English words and songs to play regularly at home. A 10-month package of
weekly lessons costs parents 7,00012,000 Kc ($330565), including books and
CDs. "[The parents] want to give their infants a better start," she said.
But how much can babies, for instance, actually be learning if they spend
most of the lesson drooling?

"Based on my personal experience, it won't do the children any harm. It
can only be beneficial," said Zdenek Star from the Institute of
Linguistics at Charles University. The University of Pardubice's Cern
disagreed. These lessons are likely a waste of time and money, she said.
"We have to distinguish between language learning and acquisition," she
said. "This idea seems absurd, considering that the children are so small.
They compare this method to the acquisition of a mother tongue, but the
input when acquiring one's mother tongue is whole segments of language,
not just isolated words."? Ludovica Serratrice, a specialist in child
bilingualism at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom,

"Children who are exposed to a second language before one year of age
could really learn two languages as their first,"? she said. "But there is
a full-immersion requirement. Thirty minutes or so wouldn't be enough.
You'd have to provide children with very rich language input in terms of
quality and quantity."? Toenovsk says the Helen Doron method provides that
input. "Our students are exposed to soundtracks, recorded with native
speakers, daily,"? she said. "They have everyday contact with English. Our
method in fact imitates the system in bilingual families." Even if
English is heard in the home, children would need to be educated in a
full-immersion system for mother-tongue skills to develop, Serratrice
said. Otherwise, "The dominant [Czech] environment will take over. You
need to do a lot of work to keep up the minority language."?

Still, Serratrice agreed the lessons will have some benefits. "It
certainly doesn't hurt being attuned to sounds that are different. It
develops understanding in general about how language works," she said.
"So [these lessons] may be a good way to kick-start language learning."

Nada Cern contributed to this report.
Hilda Hoy can be reached at hhoy at

The Prague Post, a weekly newspaper published in the Czech Republic.


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