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Is early childhood bilingualism a myth?

21 Feb 2018

father and child reading together

These days, more Singaporeans are speaking English at home, and may not use their mother tongue languages as often as before.

However, more parents are showing interest in wanting their kids to be bilingual, but can a young child really be proficient in more than one language?

Ms Thesigambigal, a Tamil language educator from MOE Kindergarten @ Frontier, shares her views.

What are some of the issues which young children face today in learning Tamil language?

Children typically do not have problems in picking up languages, but the frequency and exposure to the language is important. When children get exposed to both English and Tamil languages, they are in a better position to learn and use both languages. When Tamil language is not used often enough at home or at school, they don’t have a chance to listen to or speak the language often and it becomes unfamiliar to them.

Some believe that learning two languages in early childhood is difficult and confusing, and a child may end up not being proficient in either language. What are your thoughts on this?

I don’t think this is true. From what I have observed in my children, when a child picks up more than one language, he or she is more confident in speaking up. The child can learn to differentiate the languages and switch between them as well. For instance, my children would be able to tell me the Tamil language equivalent of the English words that I say.

Besides, being bilingual helps in children’s cognitive development. Children who are familiar with their mother tongue languages will also better understand their culture, traditions and practices in day-to-day life.

What are some methods which parents can try at home, to get their children to be confident and competent in using both English and their mother tongue language?

One issue which I have noticed is that good Tamil-language books for children are not always easy to find. I would suggest to parents to read English-language books with their children, but explain the pictures, the story, and discuss the books’ content in Tamil language.

In this way, children can still be exposed to the language. They may not be able to speak Tamil language fluently just from being involved in such an activity, but listening to Tamil language is a good start as they will expand their vocabulary along the way.

Parents can also try to use both languages in their daily conversations with their children. For instance, the mother can speak Tamil with the child, while the father can use English. It not only exposes the child to both languages, it also helps the child understand that both languages are equally important.

What if a child is uninterested in learning their mother tongue language?

Parents can bring their children to places that have significance in their culture, such as Little India, and show them the colourful aspects of their own culture. They can also use their mother tongue language to explain culture and traditions to them.

When children can touch and see these things for themselves, they would likely be keen to find out more, and they may realise that their mother tongue language is actually quite interesting.