Embracing our Mother Tongue

In his recent speech at the 9th Mother Tongue Languages Symposium (e-MTLS), Education Minister Mr Lawrence Wong has called bilingualism “the hallmark of [Singapore’s] education system”. Indeed, since the 1960s, almost every student in Singapore has learnt two languages.

However, in the last few decades, many students have found it difficult to develop a good grasp of their Mother Tongue. Many even dislike the language and prefer to converse in English. Some parents are worried that their children will grow up rejecting their Mother Tongue altogether.

Why Mother Tongue is important

Although English seems set to become the world’s lingua franca, fluency in one’s Mother Tongue is still a must. Being proficient in Mother Tongue unlocks many doors and learning opportunities for children.

Firstly, being fluent in multiple languages is good for the child’s development. Studies have shown that bilingual children have better cognitive skills than monolingual children, allowing them to perform tasks better. Evidence also suggests that bilingual children have better social skills, as they are able to see contexts from different perspectives.

Secondly, fluency in Mother Tongue helps our children communicate with their elders, many of whom cannot speak English well. This will help children to understand the needs of the elderly, and is an important step towards social cohesion and bridging inter-generational divides.

Lastly, Singapore’s location in Southeast Asia exposes us to a wealth of languages and opportunities. The rise of China, India and other regional countries means that in order to cooperate with different nations in the future, students will need to be fluent in their Mother Tongues.

What Parents Can Do

Mr Lawrence Wong mentions: “In the early years, parents are a key partner for Mother Tongue Language learning.” But many parents may not be comfortable speaking to their children in their Mother Tongue, because they are not confident in the language themselves. This creates many missed learning opportunities for both parents and children.

What are some simple steps parents can take to help nurture their child’s appreciation for their Mother Tongue? Below are a few tips:

  1. Set aside fixed times to have conversations with your child in their Mother Tongue. For instance, family dinners are a good time to let your child practice, as you can ask them about their day and what they did in school.
  2. If possible, have one parent take charge of one language. This helps to divide up the parents’ responsibilities and your child will then be exposed to their Mother Tongue at least half the time.
  3. Use bilingual books. For children who need a confidence boost, there are a variety of books to choose from that have both English and Mother Tongue translations.
  4. Choose topics that interest your child. If your child likes music, introduce them to songs in their Mother Tongue.
  5. Make use of digital media. As the majority of online content today is in English, it is good to expose them to alternative digital materials that are in their Mother Tongue.
  6. Have fun! Languages are dynamic and there is no fixed method to go about teaching it. Feel free to come up with your own ideas to engage your child, and refrain from constantly quizzing them on their Mother Tongue grammar or vocabulary skills.

Getting your child to enjoy learning Mother Tongue may seem like a daunting task. But one does not perfect a language overnight. With a bit of patience, and by focusing on building confidence and exposure, your child will be able to embrace their Mother Tongue in no time!