Learning a second language presents many benefits and practical advantages. Not only does it allow one to converse with others, people who speak a second language have also been shown to have better social and problem-solving skills as compared to monolinguals. However, with more people using English as their main language, children have lower motivation and fewer opportunities to gain proficiency in a second language. In this article, SPD’s speech therapist, Oh Jing Jing, answers some of the most frequently asked questions about learning a second language.
Some people may be exposed to more than one language as they grow up, or they may learn a second language sometime after their first language. In Singapore, the latter phenomenon has become more common, with increasingly more children using English as their first and main language (Lim, 2019), and only picking up their mother tongues (e.g. Mandarin, Malay, Tamil) as their second language in the later years. With this later exposure to a second language, caregivers often have many questions about how to support their child’s learning and can be confused by conflicting advice. Fortunately, there are evidence-based approaches that we can introduce to better teach, and support second language learning.
When do I start introducing a second language? The earlier the better.
Newborn babies come into the world ready to learn languages. At birth, they are already able to recognise all the sounds of any language. This means that parents should start exposing children to the second language as early as possible, even starting at birth. Here are some tips and suggestions you can start with, especially in the early years:
- Name the people and things that your child frequently uses or sees using the second language. Remember to also point or show them the item/ action at the same time.
- Sing and dance to nursery rhymes using the second language. YouTube has many videos of nursery rhymes in different languages. For example, 手指家庭 (The Finger Family) from Little Fox Chinese – Stories & Songs for Learners, “Lima Ekor Monyet” (5 little monkeys) from Lagu Kanak TV, or நிலா நிலா ஓடிவா (Nila Nila Odi Va) from Chu Chu TV Tamil
- Offer choices and repeat the preferred choice through your comments, for instance, “உனக்கு பந்து வேண்டுமா? காடி வேண்டுமா ? உனக்கு பந்து வேண்டும். சிவப்பு பந்து. பெரிய பந்து.” (Translation: Do you want ball? Or car? You want ball. Red ball. Big Ball.)
What if I missed the early window of opportunity? It’s never too late.
It is more challenging to pick up another language as one gets older. This is especially so for aspects of language like accent and grammar (Byers-Heinlein & Lew-Williams, 2013). Even though earlier is better, it is never too late to begin. Second language learning can still be successful with sufficient motivation and a supportive learning environment.
How can I provide a supportive learning environment?
Essentially, the longer a child has been exposed to a second language and the more words they hear, the more proficient they will be (Thordardottir, 2011). Here are some ways that you can increase the amount of exposure they get:
- Consistently use the second language with the child in selected daily routines or activities (e.g. speak Malay/Mandarin/Tamil at mealtime and book reading time; use English when doing homework)
- Use second language in play activities. For example, naming and talking about the play items or actions in the second language, or incorporating into pretend play (e.g. pretend to be a customer ordering food from a Chinese restaurant. Or when playing with dolls, you can name the respective body parts (e.g. eyes- கண், nose- மூக்கு , ear- காது) or play items (e.g. shirt – சட்டை) in the second language.
- If your child is exposed to second-language curriculum in school, take note of the new words that they are learning for the week, and focus on repeating them by pointing out pictures of them or talking about them.
- Read bilingual books with text printed in both languages or find the second-language translation of your child’s favourite English books. You can check out the Children’s section in our public libraries. Look out for [BIL] in the call number (e.g. JP BAG –[BIL]). For book recommendations, check out these book lists from Lah Lah Banana, HoneyKids Asia and the National Library Board. This video provides more tips and ideas on how to get started reading books for bilingual language learning.
Can my child pick up a second language from TV shows/ videos?
In using multimedia formats such as videos and animations, children often lack opportunities to put what they have learnt into practice (Lytle, Garcia-Sierra and Kuhl, 2018). Instead, children need interactions with different fluent speakers of the second language so that they can use it in social, functional situations. Such interactions could take place in-person or via online platforms such as video chats or Facetime.
With the prevalence and convenience of mobile devices, we can use them to maximise children’s language learning:
- Use video chats/ Facetime functions with others who speak the second language
- Watch a show together with your child and discuss what happened. You could pre-empt them with the questions that you would ask, so that they can look out for them while watching.
- Use a variety of multimedia materials (e.g. interactive games, eBooks) in which you would also have a chance to actively participate in the process.
What if I am not fluent in the second language?
You might be tempted to weave in whatever few words you may know in the second language into your sentences to increase your child’s exposure. However, this can be unhelpful. For example:
“Aida berasa stressed out because tiada orang boleh bantu dengan homeworknya.” (Translation: “Aida is feeling stressed out because she has no one to guide her with her homework.”)
Or “我们去playground 玩 swing and slide.” (Translation: “Let’s go to the playground to play on the swing and slide.”)
Instead, focus on providing good models of words and sentences, for instance:
“Aida berasa tertekan kerana tiada orang ingin membantunya dengan kerja rumah.”
Or ”我们去游乐场 玩秋千和溜滑梯“
If you are not fluent in the second language, seek support from other sources, such as schools with a strong emphasis on bilingual education, enrichment classes, and even other family members who are fluent in the second language.
How can I motivate my child to learn the second language?
Children often dread second language learning because they struggle to see the relevance to their lives. To motivate your child, it is important to consider their interests and learning styles, and what they can use the second language for (e.g. does learning this second language allow them to pick up new hobbies? Grow their social circle? Connect with their peers?). This commentary by bilingualism researcher, Dr. Leher Singh, provides further thinking points when thinking about motivation for second language learning.
Here are some suggestions and resources to help second language learning feels less of a chore:
- Provide praise and encouragement when your child speaks in the second language, even when they need some support in expressing their thoughts adequately.
- Encourage them to join reading and poetry clubs at the National Libraries participate in events such as the Tamil Language Festival, or volunteer in the community (e.g. befriending elderly people) where they can meet and interact with others using their second language.
- Encourage them to talk to family members who are proficient in the language.
- Gather ideas of fun activities to try from other parents or professionals. Lah Lah Banana and Budding Bilinguals have some great ideas and resources for Mandarin and Malay language learning respectively.
- Share about your day, jokes or stories using the second language and encourage your child to do the same. Though, it may sometimes take several weeks or months until your child feels confident and comfortable to share in their second language and that’s okay!
My child has difficulties with language learning. Should I still encourage second language learning?
It may seem counter-intuitive, but experts recommend that caregivers should continue to encourage second language learning rather than limiting to one language only. Research has shown that children with various developmental difficulties (e.g. Down Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Developmental language Disorder etc.) have no greater difficulty learning both languages than just one, when given frequent exposure to the languages. They can successfully learn to speak and read in two languages and learning two languages does not impede their language development (Scharff et al., 2020). In encouraging second language learning, caregivers should provide abundant opportunities to hear and practise the second language as discussed above.
If you are interested to find out more, this interview, “Can special needs children be bilingual?” may be helpful.
Raising a bilingual child can sometimes feel like an overwhelming task. Hopefully, this article sheds some light on how you can approach it. With a positive attitude and consistent effort, raising a bilingual child can also be enjoyable and rewarding.
Byers-Hinlein, K., & Lew-Williams, C. (2013). Bilingualism in the early years: What the science says. LEARNing Langscapes, 7(1), 95-112
Lim, J (2019, October 22) ‘Speak Mandarin Campaign achieved ‘good results’ initially, but S’pore is losing bilingual edge: PM Lee’ TODAY ONLINE https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/more-local-chinese-speaking-english-their-main-language-singapore-losing-bilingual-edge-pm
Loh, S. (2021). How to raise bilingual children: we ask the expert to share her top tips. Retrieved 3 June 2021, from https://honeykidsasia.com/how-to-raise-bilingual-children-we-ask-the-expert-to-share-her-top-tips/?fbclid=IwAR3HSkQblQ_91Ao-oGQba-sNEgcxyOYiGpFtRhNAtPyXXZA5fAsHK-LO-Es
Lytle, S. R., Garcia-Sierra, A., & Kuhl, P. K. (2018). Two are better than one: Infant language learning from video improves in the presence of peers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(40), 9859-9866.
Singh, L. (2021). Commentary: What hope do monolingual parents have in raising bilingual children?. Retrieved 3 June 2021, from https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/commentary-what-hope-do-monolingual-parents-have-in-raising-9842552
Scharff R. W., McNeilly, L., Abutbul-Oz, H., Blumenthal, M., Salameh, E. K., Smolander, S., … & Thordardottir, E. (2020) Common Questions by Parents and Caregivers of Bilingual/Multilingual Children and Informed, Evidence-based Answers. Retrieved 14 June 2021, from https://files.japanslht.or.jp/notifications/2020/05/27/Common-Questions-by-Parents-Caregivers-of-Bili-Multi-Children-and-Informed-Evidence-based-Answers_2020.pdf
Thordardottir, E. (2011). The relationship between bilingual exposure and vocabulary development. Int. J. Biling. 15, 426–445.