TEACHING English to children too early could be a waste of time and turn them off later language learning, according to a government education official. The Institute of Language in Education director, Dr John Clark, said forcing young children to learn English without an element of fun had resulted in ''children being demotivated and actively turned against English in their first few years of school''. Young students were bombarded by Cantonese when they returned home and English lessons were ''torn out like a frail seed''. He said the best English teachers should be given to students aged eight and older who could ''learn deliberately rather than for fun''. There was ''not much point'' trying to give lasting English skills to children before this age. Students and teachers learned languages best in an immersion situation when they were surrounded by one language, but this was incompatible with the students' environment in Hongkong. But Dr Clark stressed that English and Chinese were both important in the local environment. The prestige some parents associated with English was a long-term issue which had to be addressed. English was the language to help Hongkong remain a centre for international trade and commerce, but a mother tongue was essential. ''Language is your soul, your heart, your means of being, your means of communicating. You must have a mother tongue and develop it,'' he said. ''We must get the balance right.'' Dr Clark said more parents probably would encourage their children to learn Chinese by 1996, when students would be required to give more paragraph-length answers in the Hongkong Certificate of Education Examination. He also said the Government and business should consider joint projects to send teachers to English-speaking countries where they could learn in an immersion situation. This could broaden language teachers' skills and their more general cultural horizons.