South Korea has banned English language classes for first- and second-grade students in elementary schools to "minimize negative effects of early English education practices". The ban, which came into effect on Thursday, is part of a policy that, the government says, is in line with a Constitutional Court ruling in 2016 that said teaching English may hinder the students' proficiency in Korean.
Kwon Ji-young, director of early childhood education and care policy division at the Ministry of Education, told Al Jazeera, "According to many English education experts and neuroscientists, the right age for learning English as a second language is the third grade.
"Starting second-language education at preschool is too early. Before that, social skills and cognitive development should take place. A lot of parents think earlier the better when it comes to learning a second language."
In South Korea, kindergartens that conduct English classes are not officially registered as pre-schools but operate as private academies.
Although expensive, the growing demand for early English education has made these outlets very popular among parents who can afford them.
South Korea's annual household income per capita is $15,335. Some of these outlets charge more than $1,500 a month.
The ban, which will also see around 7,000 teachers lose their jobs, will create a further divide with children from low-income families set to miss out in a highly competitive society, said experts.
Kim Hee-won, a private English teacher, said, "If, after the second grade, you compare the ones who received private English lessons with the ones who didn't, the difference will be huge. In Korean society, the more money you have, the more educated you can be."
Hee-won, who has been teaching in the capital Seoul since 2003, ruled out English learning having an adverse effect on a child's proficiency in Korean.
She did, however, warn of the increase in demand for English institutions and also of the competitiveness that exists among parents.
"In South Korea, some mothers compare what kind of stroller they have for their kids, which hospital their child was born in and how they want to follow the trends.
"The level of competition is very fierce, and they will spend a lot of money to ensure their child gets taught English."
Together with the ban, the ministry has issued a warning and reminder to Korean parents, urging them to treat English as a second language.
Ji-young said, "It's important how parents perceive English as a second language. Korean children are exposed to stressful learning conditions due to academic pressure. It even starts before they are born.
"The Ministry tries to conduct programs and seminars for parents to improve their perception of English education."
A Ministry of Education official, who wished to remain anonymous, said there would be plans put in place for children from low-income families.
"The Ministry has plans which include offering financial help to attend English programs and assisting schools which lack resources to create those programs," the official said.