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How to help your child become bilingual

22 Mar 2019

Dr Leher Singh_1 (800x533)

Encouraging your child to be bilingual might not be easy but it doesn’t have to be boring. Here are five tips for parents – including monolingual ones – to create a conducive environment for your child to learn a new language.


Growing up in Hong Kong, Dr Leher Singh could speak a few words of Cantonese. She was not proficient in the language, but could order food or ask for directions.

As her bio reads on the NUS Infant and Child Language Centre’s blog: “She learnt Cantonese for a brief spell and still remembers enough to order Dim Sum!”

The language expert, who lived in Hong Kong for 17 years, was a student at a British-run international school where she was not required to pick up a second language until the secondary school level.

But she decided to enrol in Cantonese language classes after school to pick up the language.

“Even as a child, I appreciated the chance to tune in to my environment by having a bit of the local language,” said Dr Singh, Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) who speaks English, Dutch and French.

While not every child may express the same interest in learning languages, there are still ways to motivate and encourage them to do so.

With her extensive research in the areas of early childhood language perception, Dr Singh believes parents can create the right environment to nurture bilingualism – including monolingual parents.

Tip 1: Parents should show interest in the second language

A common fear among parents is that their children will end up losing interest in their mother tongue. Parents can prevent this by first showing interest in the language and hopefully, this interest will rub off on their children.

After all, research has proven that parents’ involvement affects their child’s mindset, so parents can be a key motivating force in learning.

There are two things that parents can do. First, help your children keep the motivation level high to sustain their interest in the language. Second, create opportunities for them where they are able to see the relevance of the language.

“It is hard to keep the motivation high at home and at school when the child lives in a purely monolingual world, because they can fail to see the relevance of the other language,” Dr Singh noted.

“So for parents who mainly only speak English at home, it really requires some creativity to build opportunities to get the child to see the language as relevant.”

Tip 2: Bilingualism goes beyond the classroom

Parents often fall into the trap of introducing their children to a new language as if it were a foreign entity, separate from their everyday lives. However, for children to pick up a language, it is beneficial for the language to be worked into their daily lives.

“Bilingualism is a family commitment so parents need to create opportunities where children can use the language in practical, meaningful ways,” she explained.

For instance, if parents are trying to encourage their child to speak in Tamil, they could organise trips to South Indian restaurants and encourage their child to place his orders and review the food in Tamil.

Organising regular meet-ups with native speakers like neighbours, relatives or friends who can serve as “language buddies” can also encourage children to express themselves in a second language.

Tip 3: Find out what motivates your child to learn

To encourage bilingualism, parents first need to understand that children’s’ motivations for learning a new language are usually different from their own.

“As parents, you might see the language as relevant because you think of the child’s academic possibilities. But that is not a line of reasoning that appeals to most four-year olds,” said Dr Singh.

“We need to understand their motivations and then build upon them in order to keep them engaged.” 

So parents will have to appeal to their children in ways that are relevant to them. For instance, parents can ask children to consider what they believe they will lose or miss out on if they do not speak Mandarin.

For some children, not speaking in their native tongue might mean losing contact with a grandparent who speaks in the same language.

“This may get them curious about the world behind the language, and then hook them into the language,” she added.

What if the children are not keen to pick up the language? Parents need to understand the source of disinterest.

Understanding why a child is uneasy can help to address and remove barriers on the part of the child to speaking a second language.

With research showing that children embrace a second language better when they are self-driven, it is important for parents not to force their children.  

Instead, parents should find out what other languages their child might be interested in learning and channel their efforts accordingly. 

Tip 4: Have fun learning the language

Given the deeply humanistic experience of a conversation, there is no substitute for face-to-face interactions when it comes to bilingualism, said Dr Singh.

Parents can make learning fun via interactive games and having conversations in the second language.

For example, parents can simulate different real-world scenarios at home and encourage their children to reply in their second language.

Playing child-friendly games like Bingo or even labelling things in their environment  using the second language allows children to think on their feet and expand their vocabulary.

By making the language relevant to their children’s perspective, parents also stand a higher chance of convincing them to embrace a new language.   

“Parents can create opportunities to bring the language into the lives of their children in ways that are relevant through the child’s eyes,” she noted.

Tip 5: No ideal age to learn a new language

When it comes to learning a new language, there’s no such thing as the “right” age.

“Ideally, children should start learning a new language as early as possible but it can also be all right if they embrace bilingualism later on in their lives,” she stressed. 

Parents often worry about the age limit for learning a new language but studies have shown that people can take up multiple languages no matter what their age.

What matters more is the person’s motivation for learning a second language.

Parents should also avoid comparing your children’s ability to grasp a second language against other children. “

“Children bring their own internal learning capabilities to language learning just like they do to everything else so the last thing parents should do is compare,” she said.

Instead, try to constantly nurture and acknowledge the children’s attempts and act as a safe space for them to express themselves.

“Encourage your child to walk their own path and recognise that, as with any other area, children will perform differently from one another, but the key here is to be persistent with their efforts,” said Dr Singh.

“As we move towards a world that is increasingly cosmopolitan, being bilingual can help a child connect with the world-at-large in a more meaningful manner and open the door to greater possibilities.”