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Getting better at a language

What is language? It is defined as the way people communicate through spoken and written words and even gestures (think Sign Language). Singapore is a country in which multiple languages are spoken, and hence many of us who went through the local school system are bilingual – we can understand and speak at least two languages, English and a “mother tongue” – either Chinese, Malay or Tamil/Hindi.

We often hear laments from parents that their children are much more fluent and able in English but do rather poorly in their mother tongue. My experience was somewhat different growing up – my father spoke to me in English but my mother, who I communicated with more, spoke to me in Chinese. I was primarily a Chinese speaker and watched lots of Chinese drama serials on local TV. As our family wasn’t well off, and my parents were not into enrichment, I started Kindergarten unable to recognize the English alphabet, nor to read English stories. Back then, the education system wasn’t as intense and competitive, so I had the space to learn how to read bit by bit in kindergarten. Once I started Primary School, almost all my classmates spoke to one another in English and all the teaching was conducted in English, except the Chinese and “Moral Education” classes. I started watching more English TV shows and in a matter of months, English became my dominant language instead. I could still communicate with my mother in Chinese, but my Chinese ability stagnated while my English fluency has increased tremendously through the years.

When I became a parent myself, I made the mistake of speaking to my oldest boy in English only. I was horrified when he entered preschool and was the only child in a class of 20 who understood none of what his Chinese teacher was saying. I decided to speak in Chinese exclusively with #2 from birth and was amazed at how he could fluently communicate with me in Chinese until he was 6. It helped that a Chinese teacher took care of him for at least half his day at the childcare centre. Chinese was his first language and he had to mentally translate from Chinese to English to answer English speakers. This changed, once again, as he entered Primary School. His exposure to English increased dramatically and he started to choose to watch English shows and YouTube videos instead of Chinese content. Within a few months, English became his first language. Now, he answers me in English when I ask him questions in Chinese. I have lost the battle, for now …

I heard a fascinating programme on BBC radio recently on Superlinguists aka polyglots –people who have learnt and can fluently speak many languages – with some able to speak more than 10 languages (imagine that!). The BBC presenter gathered some key tips that I thought were really applicable:

1) Language learning takes motivation - we must WANT to learn a language. Sometimes this comes because it’s a necessity (eg. we need to use the language when we are in a foreign country) and sometimes, it’s just fascination with the culture of the people who speak that language. For us in Singapore, this would involve exposing our children to a language in a fun way – perhaps finding out about the language’s history, watching interesting shows that are only in the language or reading stories to the child in that language and explaining bits along the way in the child’s first language.

2) Language learning takes TIME for exposure and practice - many of us adults think that learning a language is too hard at our age as our brains just no longer learn as easily as children’s. However, when our children are toddlers, they are exposed to the languages spoken at home all their waking hours (eg. ie 8 – 10 hours a DAY). They don’t have to work, so all their time is spent listening to others speaking that language and trying to respond. Whereas us adults spend the bulk of our time at work or communicating with others in our first language, and perhaps at most 2 hours a WEEK in our 2nd or whichever 3rd language we are trying to pick up. What this means for us that are trying to help our children get better at their second language is that we need to dedicate more time for exposure to that language. An hour a DAY using that language at home, on top of school exposure, would make a world of difference, for example.

So parents who are looking for resolutions to make for the new year may consider introducing some new habits at home eg. half an hour or more will be spent using a different language each weekday!

For those who are looking to develop their children’s English ability – you can take a look at our Alphabet Flashcards and ‘Learn Aa to Zz the Fun Way!’ hands-on activity book which are on sale from 2/11/20 – 14/11/20. We will also be introducing our reading workbooks in the coming weeks!


About the Author

Hsin Ee is a mum of a bunch of rowdy and active boys. If you see a woman hollering madly at three boys in a shopping mall or a MRT station, it's probably her.


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