Two Is Better Than One

Did you know that learning two languages builds brain power? Experts share everyday ways to introduce mother tongue to your baby.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Did you know that learning two languages builds brain power? Experts share everyday ways to introduce mother tongue to your baby.

NO BABY TALK Never mind that he’s not even uttering his first words yet – your infant’s first year is crucial to building a strong foundation in language.

Babies process language structure and meaning long before they begin to speak, says Huang Ying, the principal of Chengzhu Mandarin education. So, go ahead and respond to his coos and babbles with your regular speech.

“Although young infants can’t grasp the precise meaning of words, the speech and language parts of their brains are stimulated when we speak to them. The more language they hear, the more those parts of the brain will grow and develop.”

By the time he can put words together, he would have already learnt the peculiarities of the languages you’ve spoken to him.

“Children who are exposed to two languages from birth learn to speak both fluently. From six months, however, if babies have not heard particular sounds from individual languages, they will experience difficulty distinguishing them later,” she adds.

Research also indicates that as your baby grows, his adaptability to sounds and languages decreases. Beyond six or seven years old, it gets increasingly difficult for him to form strong language connections.

“So, it is much harder for a child to learn language in primary school than it is in infancy and in preschool,” she explains.

SING, READ AND PLAY Engage your bub, as he learns most easily when it’s an organic, enjoyable process. Fill your home with music and singing, conversation, books to share and activities, Huang Ying suggests.

“When words are matched with the patterns of rhythm and melody in poems and songs, kids remember them more easily. So, speak or sing along to CDs, learn the words and patterns and enjoy them with your baby while he absorbs language vocabulary, grammar and expression without any stress,” she says.

As your infant grows, expand the activities to include art, dance, cookery and calligraphy experiences to bring the spoken and written language to life.

ONE PARENT, ONE LANGUAGE One of the best ways to teach bilingualism is equal exposure to both languages at home.

“For this reason, my husband and I each use our own languages when we speak to our son. My British husband speaks English and I speak Chinese,” says China-born Huang Ying.

Your baby learns through consistency and association: Mummy speaks Mandarin (or Malay or Tamil) and Daddy speaks English, and when they are together, they speak English.

For this to work well, both parents should spend adequate and balanced time with the child.

BE A STUDENT What if both you and Hubby are not proficient in your mother tongue? After all, many of today’s households use English as their main language. If that’s the case, learn along with your kid and show a keen interest in the language even if you’re not skilled in it.

“Parents’ enthusiasm, involvement and consistency in exposing the baby to a language play a key role in success, whether they are imparting knowledge or learning alongside their child. There are many types of language classes available. You’re sure to find one that’s suitable for you and your baby,” says Melissa Cowden, director of Bibinogs Kids Academy.

“Being monolingual, I’ve always made it a point to expose children to different languages where possible. From an early age, they listened to lullabies in various languages, and watched popular children’s videos such as Baby Einstein, which are also available in different languages. Audio books with accompanying picture books are good exposure as well,” Melissa shares.

Encourage Junior to practise what you’ve both learnt – perhaps you could even let him take the lead and play “teacher” with you, too.

USE IT OR LOSE IT Immersion is the key to mastering language, so try to constantly expose your baby to it as part of everyday life.

“In Singapore, we are fortunate that there are many social opportunities where different languages are spoken,” Huang Ying says. This could be at the hawker centre, community centre, or even chit-chatting with neighbours.

VISIT THE GRANDPARENTS You can also enlist the help of Grandpa and Grandma. “If you have multilingual family members, make an effort to take advantage of it and have them speak to your baby in the languages regularly from the beginning,” says Melissa.

Raising a bilingual baby is a dedicated, family affair. “The main challenge is for the parents. There must be continuous effort made to incorporate the language on a regular, if not daily, basis. It should be experienced on a holistic level, or what is referred to as ‘knowing and living the language’,” she concludes.

A tall order, but one that can be accomplished more easily the earlier you start introducing Baby to languages.


My Reading Room

What should I look for in a Mandarin enrichment class?

We ask Huang Ying, the principal of Chengzhu which offers Mandarin programmes for children from six months to 12 years old.

It is important to look beyond the publicity materials to ascertain whether or not a school is delivering what it claims. Take these into consideration:

• A bright spacious classroom with natural daylight and colourful stimulating pictures will help your child to engage with the learning process.

• Teachers must be professionally qualified with a recognised early childhood qualification.

• The teaching philosophy must be pupil-centred, with small class sizes of no more than 15 children.

• The teaching methods must be varied and positive encouragement must be used as a central pedagogical tool.

• Communication with parents must take place regularly and supporting materials to be used at home must be clear and fun to use. There should also be regular open classes where parents can observe the lesson, which helps to establish trust in the school.

Bilingual = Smarter

Little two-year-old Summer Tan spends her afternoons watching English cartoons and reading Chinese storybooks with her mother.

Exposed to both languages, the energetic tot effortlessly switches between English and Mandarin when she speaks. Science says she stands to benefit from this ability.

Bilingual infants such as Summer are able to learn a third language more easily, a study by National University of Singapore (NUS) researchers found.

They are able to differentiate between words from an unknown foreign language, unlike their monolingual counterparts.

“That suggests that the window on further language acquisition had started to close on monolingual children but was very much open for the bilingual children,” says Associate Professor Leher Singh from the NUS department of psychology.

During the nine-month study, infants who were solely exposed to English and those who knew English and Mandarin were exposed to the southern African language, Ndebele.

In one experiment, the 40 infants were shown an image and at the same time read a Ndebele word.

After that, they were shown the same image, but this time, a different word was read out to them. The bilingual children detected the change in sound, while the monolingual children did not.

The conclusion was made using a method that tracks the time that they spent looking at an object on a computer screen while the word was read out to them. More fixation time when the tone changed reflects a surprised response, indicating that they were sensitive to the differences.

The finding, published in scientific journal Child Development last year, further supports the theory that exposing children to two languages at the same time has cognitive benefits.

An earlier study by Prof Singh and her team found that bilingual babies can master the rules of each language faster than monolingual babies.

A child learns a language fastest from birth to the age of three. In the past people used to think teaching a child two languages at the same time would hamper the early learning process for both languages, Prof Singh says.

She adds: “This study suggests parents trying to raise bilingual children shouldn’t worry about that, and in fact we should be aware of the fact that it is beneficial to children.”

Knowing this puts Summer’s mother, Audrey Wu, 38, at ease. The housewife had initially limited Summer’s language exposure to English as she had read that teaching babies two languages concurrently would confuse them.

But seeing how Summer could not communicate with her grandparents, who speak Mandarin, Audrey decided to teach her the language as well.

“It’s a relief to know this will not have any bad effects on her language development, but will in fact enhance it,” Audrey says.