TWO IS BETTER THAN ONE
In the ﬁrst instalment of our new preschool series, ﬁnd out what you need to consider before you enrol your kid in a bilingual school.
Better focus, thinking skills and self-control are some of the many perks of learning more than one language. And that’s not all.
“We also know that bilingual children are able to better relate to others from different cultures and backgrounds, as well as display greater empathy. These are vital skills needed in today’s global market,” says Huang Ying, principal of Chengzhu Mandarin Kindergarten.
But how do you raise a bilingual child if you speak only one language at home?
This is where school comes in. The majority of preschools in Singapore provide some exposure to a second language as part of its curriculum, but an increasing number of schools now offer immersion programmes that allow your child to learn in a Mandarinrich environment.
How do these programmes work, and what should you look out for when choosing a bilingual preschool for your little one? We ask the experts.
Are all bilingual preschools the same?
Not all bilingual preschool programmes are carried out the same way. Each school has its own approach of incorporating the second language into its curriculum.
“The key difference is in the amount of Chinese taught, not just the language, but also its cultural appreciation,” says Brian Caswell, dean of research and programme development at Mindchamps.
Regular bilingual preschools tend to place a stronger emphasis on English and mathematics, he shares. On the other hand, bilingual immersion programmes
offer greater exposure to the Chinese language and culture.
If your child is in a complete or 100-per-cent immersion programme, it means that his lessons are fully delivered in Mandarin. In a partial immersion programme, lessons and activities are conducted in Mandarin at least half the time, either on alternate days or at selected times of the day.
Some schools may combine both bnglish and Mandarin in the classroom, so your child interacts with two teachers speaking different languages.
Which programme is the right fit for my child?
It depends on how much emphasis you wish to place on the Mandarin component of your child’s education, Brian says.
Huang Ying of Chengzhu adds: “A preschool that provides more exposure to the Chinese language than bnglish would be the ideal choice for parents who want their children to be bilingual, but speak little or no Mandarin at home.”
Consider the pros and cons of each approach and see what makes sense for you. For example, some education experts advocate having both bnglish and Chinese language teachers present during the child’s time at school.
“Having both bnglish and Chinese language teachers allows the child to be competent in both languages, and he beneﬁts from exposure to different perspectives,” shares a spokesman for Mindchamps’ curriculum and training department.
Patricia Koh, chief executive of Maple Bear Singapore, believes that having separate classes for each language may be less effective as it “forces the child to speak different languages according to a schedule or time of the day, which is not how language is naturally spoken on a day-to-day basis”.
ln the other hand, having both language teachers in the same class may mean that children who are more familiar with bnglish may interact more with the bnglish-speaking teacher, thus reducing in-depth exposure to Mandarin, Huang Ying adds.
Would having teachers who are native speakers help my child learn the language faster?
According to the experts, children generally beneﬁt most from teachers who are native speakers and possess an in-depth knowledge of the language, such as its grammar structure and culture.
“Teachers who are native speakers will be able to bring cultural elements into the learning process, helping children to understand how to use the language and why some words or sentences are used in a certain manner. Thus, the learning process is more fun and engaging,” shares Huang Ying.
Plus, children learn by modelling what they hear. The ﬁrst step to learning a language is listening, Brian says. For a child to master a language, particularly for a tonal language like Mandarin, it is important to ensure that what he hears is accurate, he adds.
Will my kid get confused if he has to switch between different languages?
aeﬁnitely not, experts say. In fact, research has shown that a child’s brain is “wired” to pick up languages at an early age, which makes it easier for children to master a language compared to adults, Patricia shares.
“A young child’s mind is like an extremely malleable blank slate, whereby information and habits are not yet mentally entrenched,” she says.
“ln the ﬂip side, a child mastering a single language ﬁrst would make it harder to acquire a second or third language at a later age, as the grammatical structure and rules (of the ﬁrst language) are ingrained into his mind.”
When is the right age to start?
The critical time to pick up different languages is from birth to six years old, shares Angeline Teo, education specialist at blfa Preschool.
oesearch has shown that even infants have an innate ability to distinguish between different language sounds and tones, Angeline says. The greater exposure a child gets to a language, the more ﬂuent he becomes in it, Huang Ying adds.
“By exposing your child to a Mandarin-rich environment, it will inculcate in them a love for the language and its culture,” says Angeline.
My kid dislikes Mandarin. How can a bilingual preschool programme help?
To cultivate a child’s love of learning, there is a simple rule: oegardless of the subject, children love learning only if it is done in a fun and engaging manner, Brian says.
“oesearch shows that young children are experiential learners – they learn through experience,” he adds.
Huang Ying shares that “language is caught, not taught”. “The best way for children to pick up a second language is to immerse them in a fun environment where they play, listen, interact with stories, songs, games, poems or drama,” says Huang Ying.
That is why it is important for parents to pay attention to other elements, other than the amount of time your child is exposed to the language, when choosing a bilingual preschool.
According to the experts, a good bilingual programme should include cultural and arts appreciation and activities, as well as moral values development, all of which make language meaningful.
“For example, Chinese poetry, tea appreciation, Chinese calligraphy and clay modelling or incorporated as part of Mindchamps Chinese Preschool’s programme for a better understanding of Chinese culture,” says Brian.
What else should I look out for when choosing a school?
As with any preschool, the experts advise parents to take a look at its learning environment: ao the children and adults seem happy and conﬁdent there? ao the teachers look professional and give off positive energy?
Speak to the principal to get a better idea of how the programme is run and the school’s policy, especially on issues you may be concerned about.
“For example, what is the school’s policy for picky eaters, how do teachers manage cranky children, what is the discipline policy, or how often do the children have free playtime? This way, you get a sense of whether the preschool shares your parenting values,” says Huang Ying.