Speak your best language at home, expert advises

Expert says that's the best way to get kids to learn a language

IF YOU want your child to be good in English, speak the language at home.

That theory, however, may not always work, according to a linguistics expert.

Young children benefit more when parents converse with them in the language they are strongest in, rather than the one they hope their children will excel in, said Associate Professor Xiao Lan Curdt- Christiansen from the National Institute of Education.

"Some parents here have the mentality that if they want their kids to be good in a certain language, they will speak to their child in that language, even if they can't speak it well themselves," said the expert, who has conducted research on family language policy and how it affects a child's literacy development.

"But what they don't realise is when they are not strong in that language, they tend to use limited vocabulary, and this... limits the child's learning of that language."

Giving an example, she said: "You won't be able to use beautiful adjectives to describe, say, food. You can probably say in English, this is rice, that is chicken rice, but you won't be able to describe how delicious it is, because your knowledge of the English vocabulary may be weak."

She shared her observations at an international symposium on languages organised by the Nanyang Technological University, the first such meeting in Asia.

She suggested that parents tap existing resources - such as story-telling workshops - to help them teach languages to their children. Learning languages in such a manner is more useful than attending tuition sessions, "where kids practise on assessment books, but don't speak the language, and the language doesn't come alive for them".

The four-day symposium, which opened yesterday, will see some 600 experts from over 45 countries discuss issues relating to bilingualism and multilingualism.

Professor Virginia Yip from Hong Kong's Childhood Bilingualism Research Centre spoke about how it is best for children to learn two languages before they turn three. "Kids have this innate capacity to acquire language... but for an adult to learn a new language, it becomes very challenging," she said.

Speaking at the launch, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education Sim Ann pointed out that the home language environment here has changed significantly over the years. More families are using English to communicate with their young children.

That has given rise to "a constant debate and soul searching about the direction of our bilingual policy," said Ms Sim. "For example, should we be teaching mother tongue languages in the mother tongue itself, or should we be using English to teach the mother tongue language, particularly for children in predominantly English-speaking homes?"

Parent Kate Tan, 25, agreed that the proper use of language at home is important for children.

The marketing executive speaks to her three-year-old daughter in English, while her parents-in-law, whom she lives with, communicate with the child in Mandarin. She said: "When I speak Mandarin, I always mix English words in, and I don't want my daughter to learn that."


Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.