In a multicultural, multilingual society such as Singapore, being able to speak both English and a Mother Tongue Language (MTL) delivers many practical benefits. Yet there are other additional advantages to bilingualism as well -- studies have shown that learning another language can improve brain development, and in later years, protect against dementia.
Training the brain to develop two language systems also delivers unexpected benefits it seems. A 2004 study reveals bilingual children were better than monolingual children at solving certain types of puzzles. A 2012 study of Spanish seniors shows the higher the degree of bilingualism, the later in life Alzheimer's would occur.
SEED Institute senior lecturer (Chinese Programmes), Ms. Ginia Ng, agrees, "Overseas research on children's bilingual abilities and mental development shows that being bilingual is beneficial for children's development in the area of cognition, language analysis and creativity."
Learning their MTL will also help children understand and appreciate their culture.
"Children will also need their mother tongue in understanding the history, culture and traditions of their own ethnic group. This will aid them in understanding their identity and is conducive for developing their self-awareness," says Ng.
When it comes to acquiring a new language, starting early helps, and parents have important roles to play.
"Studies have found that children who began to learn a second language through everyday life routines and experiences at an early age are usually able to achieve a first language-like proficiency by adulthood," Ng explains.
"If parents create opportunities for their children to interact and communicate with people who speak different languages, not only will this improve their social skills, it will also boost their language skills and thus indirectly enhance the development of their cognitive abilities."
It is important to keep the learning positive and happy when introducing a new language to your child. The best way to start, Ng suggests, is to have a family member communicate with the child in their MTL.
"If the MTL is not the child's dominant language, the family member who interacts with the child in MTL should try his or her best to ensure that the interaction is an enjoyable one. The child should be encouraged when attempting to speak in his MTL, and should not be teased or pressured when facing difficulties in expressing himself," she adds.
One technique is to adopt a bilingual communication model within the family and let each parent model one language in order to expose the child to two languages at an early age.
"Families who adopt such a bilingual communication model should be careful not to mix the two languages when communicating with the child, but to practice 'one person, one language', and this helps the child distinguish the different speech and expressions of the two languages," Ng explains.
Another technique is to use the MTL for some specific everyday activities. This works best for a child from a primarily English-speaking family whose parents still want to expose their child to his MTL at an early age.
"This technique helps the child feel that communicating in his MTL is natural and normal," says Ng.
It will also get him attuned to MTL expressions and encourage him to learn to speak the language.
Here is where the child's pre-school can help, suggests Ms Ng. But it is important to ensure that the child has sufficient exposure to the MTL to successfully acquire the language.
According to Ng, research has shown that balanced bilingual development requires a child to spend at least 40% of time daily, learning and listening using the MTL.
Another option for monolingual families is to encourage more interaction with speakers of the MTL such as grandparents, other relatives or caregivers.
If you worry your child does not have enough exposure to his MTL, here are a few suggestions from Ng on creating a language-rich environment at home:
Song and rhyme
Simple and short songs and rhymes - "Little Mouse (小老鼠)" or "I Have a Little Donkey (我有一只小毛驴) - when accompanied by fun actions, help children take interest in their mother tongue.
Books in mother tongue
Do not forget to make stories interesting. Play each story character in a different voice perhaps. Point to pictures in the book too as you go along the story.
Children like some mystery and guessing games are ideal. Place items in a bag and ask your child to touch or feel it. Speak the name of the item in the mother tongue language and ask your child to guess what the item in the bag is.
Weekly MTL day
Set aside one day (or more) a week to speak to your child only in the MTL. If you are not fluent in your child’s MTL, you can make this day even more fun by turning it into a competition between the both of you.
Set aside a small space in the home with MTL materials - word cards, games, books and craft supplies. Create artwork with interesting pictures and words in the MTL. Carry out an activity in this corner once a week at least.
Early Childhood Development Agency