SINGAPORE - Children pick up languages the easiest in their early years, and the Government will strengthen bilingual education in pre-schools to seize that window of opportunity.
"Between birth and 6 years of age, children learn and develop rapidly. Their brains are like sponges, absorbing quickly what they see, hear and feel," said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech in Mandarin.
"We need to catch that window of development and expose young children to language, art, music," he added.
PM Lee was talking about the Government's plans to improve the quality of pre-school education, one of three issues he identified as critical to Singapore's long-term success.
The Government will also tackle diabetes, and ensure that no one is left behind in Singapore's Smart Nation push to use more technology to improve lives, he said.
Best to learn languages when young
PM Lee cited his and his mother's experiences to illustrate why starting young is crucial to learning languages well.
His mother, the late Madam Kwa Geok Choo, learnt Chinese only during the Second World War when she was already in her 20s.
Although she could understand and speak the language quite well, she seldom spoke in Mandarin because a friend had once told her that she spoke it with an English accent.
PM Lee himself learnt Chinese from the age of 3, but did not learn hanyu pinyin, a romanisation system which helps students learn the proper pronunciation of Mandarin words.
As a result, said PM Lee who attended Nanyang Primary School, his Mandarin has a "Nanyang accent", and "getting the right pronunciation is still not easy for me".
"Adults can also learn a language, but it will not be as easy for them and they will not be as fluent," he said.
"If you learnt Mandarin as an adult, you may not be able to discern its four tones... And if you mispronounce Chinese words, you may end up making a faux pas," he added.
Moreover, as mother tongues are used less at home these days, schools - especially pre-schools - play a greater role in teaching mother tongues, he said.
Giving children a good bilingual foundation is among one of the Government's plans to improve pre-school education. It is also working to increase pre-school places and improve the quality of pre-school teachers to make the profession more attractive.
Watching out for diabetes
Diabetes is on the rise in Singapore and PM Lee urged people not to ignore the problem.
He told the story of a resident whom Tampines GRC MP Cheng Li Hui had met on one of her house visits.
The man, aged about 40, is a diabetic who had to have his foot amputated and would have to be looked after by his family.
PM Lee said the man's family, including his daughter in primary school, was worried, adding that the quality of their life would drop significantly as the family's income would be affected.
He encouraged people to go for regular health check-ups, and develop a healthy lifestyle from young.
The Ministry of Health will offer $5 health check-ups from September to those older than 40. The full cost is more than $100. Grassroots networks have also been organising check-ups for blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
Using more technology
PM Lee described how technology can improve the daily lives of seniors, saying Singapore's Smart Nation push is all about making lives better for people.
For instance, smart sensors can be installed in the homes of elderly people to detect their regular movements and alert family members if no motion is etected.
This gives their family members peace of mind while they work or do other activities, he said.
PM Lee also encouraged seniors to master IT, for instance, learning to read newspapers on an iPad.
"If you are long-sighted like me, you can zoom in on the iPad for better reading. And your fingers would not be covered in ink. You can hold the newspapers in one hand, and eat a bun in the other. Use both hands at the same time," he said, making a Mandarin pun as the words for newspaper and bun sound similar.
"IT can improve our lives in many other aspects. It is not too late to learn and use IT to make our lives more convenient, safe and fun," he added.