How To Raise A Multilingual Child

raising a bilingual child

In our multicultural society that is Singapore today, it’s inevitable that many parents lose much sleep worrying about raising a child who is at least bilingual, and sometimes multilingual!

It’s no secret that the Singapore school system puts great emphasis on students having a good grasp of their mother tongue by the time they are old enough to take the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE). Different families have various strategies to cope with the need for language learning.

In some homes, dad intentionally speaks English and mum Mandarin – or vice versa. In one home, there is a daily half hour of “Chinese reading time” for their preschooler to get familiar with the subject. In our family, we only ever listen to Chinese music in the car, and also own several action song videos which our son watches at home. I also know of some couples who, despairing of ever being able to teach their child sufficiently due to their own difficulties with their mother tongue, hire a personal tutor for their child from nursery/kindergarten days to “immerse” him in the language early on.

While there is no hard and fast rule, as every child is unique and develops at his own pace of interest and readiness, here are a few tips you might find handy:

#1 Read to your child in English and your mother tongue daily

Don’t focus exclusively on English books at the expense of age-appropriate books in your mother tongue. Reading interesting books to your child daily will cultivate a familiarity and love for the language.

#2 Start early

Don’t wait until your child starts kindergarten – invest in some resources for home-learning in fun ways for children as young as 1yo. Experts say that children learn language best between the ages of 3-6 years old, after which their ability to pick up a new language decreases steadily. Talk to other mums to get recommendations for some good resources to get you started.

#3 Don’t start with writing

All too often, we start our children on language learning by teaching them to write the alphabet (English), romanics (Hindi) or strokes (Mandarin) – but there really isn’t a big need or benefit to beginning that way. Before the age of six, instead of having intensive writing sessions, focus primarily on teaching as many words in your mother tongue as possible. Writing can be easily picked up in school once your child develops an understanding and love for the language.

#4 Find age-appropriate books

To encourage your child to read his mother tongue, look for interesting and engaging, age appropriate books for your child. For example, did you know that the standard of Mandarin in China is far higher than that in Singapore? So buying your child books from China listed as for 1-2yo may overwhelm your preschooler, and be more fitting for a 5-7 year old in our context. For 1-3yo, start with very simple story books, or use picture books and flash cards to introduce your child to the language. Oftentimes, our attempts to ‘challenge’ our children too much too soon may cut off their natural interest in the language and derail home-learning efforts.

Check out these sites for some good resources to introduce your child to your mother tongue:

For Mandarin:
For Malay:
For Tamil:

By Dorothea Chow

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