In Singapore, it is a given that your kids will need to learn a second language. If you speak English at home, that language will be the mother tongue language each child will need to master through primary and secondary school. If you speak your ethnic mother tongue at home, then your children may wrestle with English as their second language. Struggling to master a second language and attending numerous tuition classes are almost a universal rite of passage for many Singaporean children. But does it have to be so difficult? What can we, as parents, do to make the learning process easier and more rewarding for our children?
Believe in the Benefits of a Second Language
The most important factor which influences how successfully a child learns a second language lies in how motivated the child is to learn it. A high degree of motivation can only occur if you believe that what you are doing is meaningful, beneficial and will make a difference in your life and the lives of those around you.
If we as parents do not believe in the benefits of learning a second language, then our children will pick up on these mindsets too. Learning a new language is always difficult, it takes time before children can build enough of a foundation for the language to come to life and for them to be able to use it meaningfully. Until that “Aha” moment materialises, it is only a firm belief that persevering is important and meaningful which will keep them going.
There are many benefits to learning a second language and they have little to do with academic requirements.
In an increasingly connected world, knowing a second language will open many doors. Not only in terms of future employment, but also in allowing our children to relate to people of other cultures and to feel comfortable living and travelling to many parts of the world. Of the 3 mother tongue languages which are taught in Singapore, Malay is spoken by 210 million people in the world, Tamil by 77 million and Chinese by about 1.4 billion people. English has 840 million speakers worldwide1. If your children can master their mother tongue, when combined with English, they will be able to communicate with anywhere between 900 million to 2.2 billion people in the world.
In addition to opening up more options for your children in the future, research has shown that bilingualism in any language results in significant gains in social and cognitive development. In studies by Espinosa, 20082, bilingual children performed better than children who only spoke 1 language on many measures including those for analytical ability, concept formation and cognitive agility.
The sooner you can get your children to start learning a second language the more naturally they will acquire it. Studies by Kuhl et al, 20063, have found that before the age of 6 months, infants are able to learn multiple languages just as well as they build separate and equal language system in their brains. These parallel systems allow you to learn both languages without becoming confused. After 6 months, the ability to learn the languages equally begins to decline and greater efforts to expose your children equally to both languages will become important.
Immersion is a way to learn a second language by using it exclusively for a certain period of time. This can be accomplished by spending several months a year in a country where everyone speaks that language – for example, spending summer in Shanghai or Taipei every year, in this case you would be undergoing full immersion for the period of time which you spend overseas.
Another option is to enrol in a partial immersion program at school. Several pre-schools offer daily programs where children are taught in English for half the day and another language for the second half of the day.
Make it Relevant
Look for ways to make using the language relevant. If you children enjoy cooking, buy cooking books in Chinese which showcase recipes which they can’t find in English cooking books. Frequent places and visit relatives where the language you are trying to encourage them to learn is used. Go on holidays to countries where your second language is used. Talk about the types of jobs and careers that speaking a second language can open up for your kids. In other words, make the language as relevant as possible.
It’s hard to keep going if it’s all work, work and more work. So inject some fun into learning.
Books, Movies, Music
Read books together. Watch movies and TV serials, if the subtitles also come in the language you are learning, then you will have both an audio and a visual cue to what the characters are saying. Listen to music and learn the lyrics together.
Plan your holidays to be as immersive as possible. Everyone is relaxed on a holiday and what better way to build positive experiences of using your second language than on a fun family trip?
Encourage your child to make friends with kids who speak your second language. Your children will enjoy playing together and they will learn from each other as they play.
Ethnologue 2015, Linguistics Society of America, Summer Linguistics Institute
Espinosa, Linda M. "Challenging common myths about young English language learners." FCD Policy Brief, Advancing PK-3 8 (2008).
Kuhl, Patricia K., et al. "Infants show a facilitation effect for native language phonetic perception between 6 and 12 months." Developmental science 9.2 (2006): F13-F21.