Most pre-schools here offer only Chinese as a second language, but that is starting to change.
In a bid to strengthen bilingualism and in response to growing interest from parents, some pre-school operators are opening Tamil and Malay classes .
They also plan to boost these areas of mother tongue teaching if demand increases.
EtonHouse started to offer Malay in 2016 and Tamil last year at one of its centres in Mountbatten - with 13 children there, mostly locals, taking up the languages.
NTUC First Campus also started offering Malay at 22 My First Skool centres in 2015, and Tamil at two centres in 2016. The anchor operator targets to expand this pilot initiative - for Malay, to 30 centres by the end of this year, and for Tamil, to five centres.
When the Ministry of Education (MOE) began to set up kindergartens in 2014, it also made sure its centres offered all three mother tongue languages. It has 18 centres currently, and will open another 13 in the next two years.
About 40 per cent of its 270 educators specialise in mother tongue languages, the MOE told The Straits Times earlier this month. Close to 60 per cent of them teach Chinese, about 24 per cent teach Malay and 18 per cent teach Tamil.
A spokesman for the PAP Community Foundation Sparkletots said nearly half of its centres currently offer Malay, and more than 10 per cent offer Tamil.
Previously, parents who wanted their pre-schoolers to learn Malay or Tamil would tend to congregate in mosque-based kindergartens or a handful of pre-schools.
One of these is Ramakrishna Mission Sarada Kindergarten, which has about 500 Indian children. Three-quarters of them learn Tamil while the rest take Hindi. Principal Narayanasamy Pushpavalli said many parents speak English at home, but in recent years they are more keen to find out how they can help their children learn their mother tongue. "In the last few years, we have been more conscious about not just teaching Tamil, but also helping the kids think in Tamil, and use it in real situations and conversations."
Ms Thian Ai Ling, deputy general manager of My First Skool, which has 18 Malay language teachers and two Tamil teachers, said: "Because of the proportion of our ethnic population, we may end up only with five Malay or Indian children in a centre. Before this, they were learning Chinese as we couldn't offer (Malay or Tamil) because it wasn't maximising productivity." But now, its Tamil and Malay language teachers move around a handful of centres every week so that more children can benefit.
Ms Josephyne Ho, senior principal of EtonHouse Pre-school in Mountbatten, said she has seen more parents requesting Malay and Tamil lessons in recent years. "They face difficulty in speaking their mother tongue at home, but they want their children to learn it in pre-school to help build a foundation for primary school."
Ms Jayanthi Krishnan, whose Kindergarten 2 son is learning Tamil at the centre, said it is a language close to her heart. "I want (my son) to have the affinity with the culture through the language," said the 41-year-old who works in the aerospace industry.
The opportunity to learn Malay was also a key reason why Ms Nurfarhannah Dawood enrolled her daughter at the same centre last year. "We want her to have that familiar ground when you can speak in Malay to others in the community, and to codeswitch," said the 32-year-old part-time tutor who mainly speaks English at home.
Similarly, Ms Nurazila Zakaria, 37, opted out of Chinese lessons for her daughter in 2016 when her My First Skool centre in Pasir Ris started offering Malay. "I would like her to learn Malay in a formal setting," said the hospital executive. "It's not just learning language, because I see that her teacher will also introduce culture and traditions while speaking in Malay."
Language and culture are intertwined, said Ms Pushpavalli. "If you can't speak the language, you are not exposed to it, you may have difficulty understanding your roots. It's about time that our children learn their mother tongue."
Correction note: This story has been edited for clarity.