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 showed that bilingual children were better than monolingual children at solving certain types of puzzles; and a 2012 study of Spanish seniors found that the higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
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," says Ms Ng.
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," she says.
When it comes to acquiring a new language, starting early helps, and parents have an important role to play in this. "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," Ms 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, suggests Ms Ng, is to have a family member communicate with the child in their MTL. "If the MTL is not the child's dominent 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," Ms Ng explains.
ENGLISH DOMINANT HOUSEHOLDS
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 Ms Ng. It will also get him attuned to MTL expressions andf encourage him to learn to speak the language.
Here's 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 in order to successfully acquire the language. According to Ms Ng, research has shown that balanced bilingual development requires a child to spend at least 40 percent of his time every day, learning and listening to his 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 that your child doesn't have enough exposure to his MTL, here are a few suggestions from Ms Ng on how to create a language-rich environment at home:
SING SONGS AND RHYMES
Simple and short songs and rhymes, when accompanied by fun actions, help children become interested in their MTL. "Little Mouse (小老鼠)" or "I Have a Little Donkey (我有一只小毛驴), for example.
USE BOOKS WRITTEN IN THE MTL
Don't forget to make the stories interesting by putting on a different voice for each character, and point to the pictures in the book to help your child understand the stories.
Try a guessing game with common household items. Place the item in a bag, and encourage your child to touch / feel it. Say the name of the item in MTL, and ask your child to guess what is.
HAVE A WEEKLY MTL DAY
Set aside one day (or more) a week to speak only in MTL. If you aren't fluent in your MTL, you can make this day even more fun by turning it into a competition with your child.
CREATE A LANGUAGE CORNER
Set aside a small space filled with MTL materials - word cards, games, books and craft supplies. Create artwork with interesting pictures printed with the MTL. Carry out an activity in this corner at least once a week!