How to raise bilingual children: we ask the expert to share her top tips

bilingual children
We asked Dr Leher Singh, Director of Infant and Child Language Centre in National University of Singapore, to share crucial tips on how to raise bilingual children...

Living in Singapore means we’re exposed to up to four different languages (give or take a dialect), including Malay, Tamil, Mandarin and English. Although it may seem like these languages are spoken only by certain groups, as a globalised and multicultural society it’s advantageous and sometimes even necessary to learn more than one language. Of course it’s easier said than done to pick up a whole other language, especially when you only speak one yourself.

When should you start teaching your kids a second language? Is it too late to start? Does raising a bilingual baby really lead to speech delays? We asked the expert, Dr Leher Singh, Director of Infant and Child Language Centre in National University of Singapore to debunk some of our burning parenting myths. She shared with us some useful tips on how parents can support second language learning and bilingual kids.

When is it too late to start learning a second language? How early can parents start?

It’s never too early or too late to start. Parents can introduce their children to two languages from birth.

Babies do a lot of ‘heavy lifting’ with language development before they produce their first words, sorting out the sounds of their language and listening in for words they know and recognise. New research technology has allowed us to understand more about what babies know from measuring brain and eye responses to pictures when they hear them labelled.

Did you know babies at four months old can recognise their own name and at six to nine months old know common words such as ‘hand’ and ‘feet’? Babies pick up language from birth and, in general, children master languages more easily earlier in life, whether it is one language or two. Some parts of learning a language, like grammar or having a native accent, seem to get more difficult with age. However, it is possible to learn a second language even as an adult if one is highly motivated, committed and in a supportive learning environment.

Is it true that kids who are bilingual take longer to speak?

Yes, children who are bilingual are slower with their first words and their single language vocabularies are smaller than those of monolingual children. However, this is because their vocabulary is spread across two languages.

A child learning English and Spanish from birth will typically know fewer words in English than a child learning English alone. However, if we count the number of words they know in both languages, bilingual children keep pace with their monolingual peers (and sometimes even know more words!).

Parents who raise bilingual children should be reassured that bilingualism does not predispose a child to a clinical language delay or impairment. However, parents should resist comparing their children with monolingual friends as monolingual and bilingual children have different pathways to language.

Does “one parent, one language” really work?

Research shows us that one-parent/one-language is not necessary or particularly advantageous for bilingualism.

People often think children get confused if one or both parents speak both languages, but research shows us these children do just fine with bilingualism. Whether their household is one-parent/one-language or not, bilinguals at some stage demonstrate what seems like ‘confusion’ and switch between languages, saying things like “Look! There’s a niao (bird)!” However, code-switching is not reduced by one-parent/one-language. It happens in most bilingual children and is a part of the bilingual journey. It usually resolves as children learn to separate their languages and use them without mixing.

bilingual children

Some HoneyKids mums have been picking up Chinese to help their kids learn the language.

What can parents do to support second language learning if they don’t speak the language themselves?

Ensure your child is in a supportive learning environment.

This is a very common question in Singapore. Can monolingual parents raise bilingual children? Absolutely! Parents who don’t speak the second language need to get creative about building a supportive learning environment and should rely on others to introduce the language to the child. In addition, bilingual children raised in monolingual families may need additional school exposure to second languages compared to those exposed to the second language at home.

A bilingual education is very effective in raising bilingual children. Around the world, dual immersion bilingual education has been shown to really help both monolingual and bilingual families raise their children bilingually – and Singapore has several dual immersion bilingual schools. Finally, while monolingual parents cannot provide bilingual input, they can monitor and evaluate their child’s second language learning. Parents should ensure that the child’s input in a second language is engaging, interactive and developmentally appropriate.

What are some tips and tricks for parents to get started teaching their children a second language?

Get your child excited to learn a second language.

One of the biggest feats in raising bilingual children is building up motivation in the child to be bilingual. Does your child see the second language as engaging and fun or as drudgery? If children are excited and keen to learn a second language, their learning journey is much easier. So introducing a child to a second language in a way that truly engages the child is much more helpful.

Some ways you can enforce this include reading a translation of your child’s favourite book in a second language, visiting the foreign languages section of the library and letting your child browse and find a book that they like. Being able to have regular contact with relatives, friends or members of the language community helps children engage with a second language.

Introducing children to popular culture or entertainment in the second language can also hook them in. Finally, children who truly engage and actually speak a second language do better than those who listen and understand, but do not speak in a second language. So if you’re signing up for classes, try to look out for classes that emphasise active engagement and avoid a passive learning environment.

If you and your little one would like to participate in the research in bilingualism, the NUS Infant and Child Language Centre conducts many studies on language development. They are currently looking for monolingual and bilingual participants between one month and four years. The studies are short and fun for kids. Each child receives a gift, a certificate, a graduation photo, a free language or cognitive assessment, and transportation reimbursement. Feel free to sign up online or contact them via email at infantlanguagecentre@nus.edu.sg or Facebook.

Like this story? Here’s more we think you’ll enjoy:

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Pick up a new language at story time
Six things you can do to help your baby develop language
Five international schools share their approaches to bilingual education

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