Being bilingual builds brain power. Bilingual babies may have better learning and memory skills than those exposed to only one language, according to a Singapore study of six-month-old infants.
Here are seven everyday ways to introduce your mother tongue to your child:
Babies process language structure and meaning long before they begin to speak, says Huang Ying, the head of Chengzhu Mandarin Centre in Singapore. So, go ahead and respond to your infant’s coos and babbles with spoken words.
“Although young infants can’t grasp the precise meaning of words, the speech and language parts of their brains are stimulated when we speak to them. The more language they hear, the more those parts of the brain will grow and develop.” By the time he can put words together, he would have already learnt the peculiarities of the languages you’ve spoken to him.
Research also indicates that the older your child, the harder it is for them to form strong language connections and learn languages, so it’s always a good idea to start early.
NEXT: Sing, read and play →
Engage your bub, as he learns most easily when it’s an organic, enjoyable process. Fill your home with music and singing, conversation, books to share and activities, suggests Huang Ying.
“When words are matched with the patterns of rhythm and melody in poems and songs, kids remember them more easily. So speak or sing along to CDs to let your kid learn the words and patterns,” she says.
Play-based activities are a fun, stress-free way for them to pick up the language, explains Bibinogs Kids Academy’s education director, Lee Yee Ping. This way, he will not reject or resist the idea of learning it.
As your infant grows, expand the activities to include art, dance, cookery and calligraphy experiences to bring the spoken and written language to life.
NEXT: One parent, one language →
It can’t be stressed enough that one of the best ways to teach bilingualism is equal exposure to both languages at home.
“For this reason, my husband and I each use our own languages when we speak to our 10-year-old son. My British husband speaks English and I speak Chinese,” says China-born Huang Ying.
Your baby learns through consistency and association: Mummy speaks Mandarin (or Malay or Tamil) and Daddy speaks English, and when they are together, they speak English. For this to work well, “both parents should spend adequate (and balanced) time with the child,” says Cynthia Tan, an English teacher at Pat’s Schoolhouse Claymore.
NEXT: Be a student →
What if both you and Hubby are not proficient in the mother tongue? After all, many of today’s households use English as their main language.
If that’s the case, learn along with your kid and show a keen interest in the language even if you’re not skilled in it. Parents’ enthusiasm, involvement and consistency in exposing the baby to a language play a key role in success, whether they are imparting knowledge or learning alongside their child.
Encourage Junior to practise what you’ve both learnt – perhaps you could even let him take the lead and play “teacher” with you, too.
NEXT: Use it or lose it →
In some cases, children who are exposed to a new language may show little interest or find the class “weird”, shares Yee Ping. But don’t worry; it’s just a matter of helping your baby overcome the initial hurdle of being in an unfamiliar language environment.
“Children are very adaptable, and once they hear the sounds of the language a few more times, the barrier disappears and they absorb it like a sponge.” she says. Immersion is the key to mastering language, so try to constantly expose your baby to it as part of everyday life.
“In Singapore, we are fortunate that there are many social opportunities where different languages are spoken,” says Huang Ying. This could be at the hawker centre, community centre, or even simply chit-chatting with neighbours.
NEXT: Make use of gadgets →
If you’re comfortable with letting your tot have screen time occasionally, Yee Ping recommends searching You Tube for some fun, culturally based videos.
Learning Mandarin? A good website that parents can go to is www.chineasy.org, which was created to bridge the gap between the East and the West. The founder aims to teach Chinese by introducing Chinese culture and history through beautifully designed tools, shares Yee Ping.
NEXT: Visit the grandparents →
You can also enlist the help of Grandpa and Grandma. “If you have multilingual family members, make an effort to take advantage of it and have them speak to your baby in the languages regularly from the beginning,” says Melissa. Especially useful if your mother tongue is one not commonly spoken in Singapore!
Raising a bilingual baby is a dedicated, family affair. There must be continuous effort made to incorporate the language on a regular, if not daily, basis.
NEXT: No baby talk →
By Wyn-Lyn Tan, Young Parents, last updated February 2017
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