SINGAPORE - At the start of each year, pre-school teacher Nazreen Banu Surali Habeeb Mohamed is faced with the challenge of getting new pre-school pupils to reply to her in their mother tongue, Tamil.
Most struggle to string sentences together as the majority of children today speak mainly English at home, said Madam Nazreen, 40, who teaches English and Tamil.
To help them feel relaxed about speaking in Tamil, she and the children craft puppets, and she casts them as puppeteers and voice actors in short skits.
Madam Nazreen said: "I do this to help them feel confident in speaking. They have fun. They use different voices to act as the characters.
"This way, they feel that no one is judging them, so the children can be more comfortable to speak in their mother tongue."
Her creative approach to teaching was commended by Education Minister Chan Chun Sing on Saturday (Aug 27) at the annual Mother Tongue Languages Symposium, where he outlined the importance of children learning their mother tongue, as well as its challenges.
Now in its 11th year, the symposium aims to promote better learning and teaching of mother tongue languages for pre-school and primary schoolchildren through workshops, sharing sessions and other programmes.
It also marks the launch of a series of online learning resources that will be available on the symposium's website till April next year.
Mr Chan said in his opening speech at Republic Polytechnic in Woodlands: "To get our younger generation interested in learning mother tongue languages, educators, parents and the community will need to be innovative."
They can tap unconventional resources, such as social media and entertainment programmes, to make learning engaging for children, he said.
He spoke about twin brothers known as the Chinese Hackers on TikTok, who produce bite-size Chinese edutainment content for youth.
In their videos, they challenge youngsters to translate common English phrases into Mandarin - often to humorous effect - reaching an audience of some 125,000 followers.
Said Mr Chan: "Such activities help students to widen their vocabulary of common terms used in our mother tongue languages, rather than the common approach of replacing words from other languages when they cannot find the right words for them."
He hopes children will see how useful a second language is in daily life, pointing to the irony that some children can readily recite idioms used in essays, but struggle to order food in their mother tongue.
He challenges parents who struggle with mother tongue themselves to commit to learning it with their children. He said this can inspire them to use it more regularly despite the difficulty.
Chinese language teacher Ji Hong said parents often tell her they struggle to speak Mandarin at home as they are not good at it.
She would encourage them to accompany their children in their learning, and incorporate Mandarin into daily activities, such as translating names of places they visit into Mandarin.
Like Madam Nazreen, Ms Ji, 39, was among 14 recipients of the Outstanding Pre-School Mother Tongue Language Teacher Award given out at the symposium.
In class at M.Y World @ Yishun Fern Grove, Ms Ji uses music to help pre-schoolers remember new words.
She said: "Music and the arts can connect with anyone. The children feel relaxed with music and it makes them cheerful when they learn Chinese."
PCF Sparkletots pre-school teacher Siti Hasniza Hassan, 39, said she welcomes pupils speaking their thoughts in English first, before she translates them into Malay.
Madam Siti said: "I want them to feel confident about expressing themselves first, then guide them on how to say it in their mother tongue."
She, too, was among the 14 award recipients for her efforts, which include using props in her mother tongue classes. For example, she took cooking materials to class and fried nasi goreng for her pupils, explaining each step in Malay.
Madam Siti added that parents play a big role in helping children become more confident in their second language.
She said: "It can be simple steps, like translating words for them, but it must be consistent. To help them build their language it must come from home too, it can't just be the school."