Becoming Bilingual in an English-Speaking Environment

More and more English-educated Chinese Singaporean parents are becoming increasingly conscious of the importance for their children to be proficient not only in the all-important English language, but also in Chinese. The emergence of China as a potential political and economic superpower has driven home to them that, becoming bilingual, will not only enhance their children’s employment prospects, but also will make them a man of two cultures.

Internationally, from East to West, more than two million foreigners are currently studying Chinese. The enrolments at the Chinese educational institutions and elsewhere have gone up significantly. These foreigners are keenly mindful of its latent economic worth in this age of Internet and globalisation. This drastic change in these Chinese Singaporeans’ perception of the usefulness of Chinese is quite remarkable. Not so long ago, they would be proud to proclaim that they knew only English and some even felt somewhat contemptuous of the Chinese culture. Today, many are regretting not being bilingual. As if to redeem themselves, some have become ardent supporters of Chinese art and culture. They also visit China regularly in order to imbibe its splendours and rich heritage.

It is common knowledge that, to master any language, especially one’s mother tongue, one must begin from childhood. But there are challenges and impediments for children of English-speaking homes to surmount in their journey towards bilingualism. Take my family as an example. While my wife and I are products of English education, we had some grounding in Chinese which we kept up in our working life. But the language of communication in our home is predominantly English.
We are gratified that our three children had between 8 and 11 years of Chinese schooling before switching over to English medium schools. However, because of the pervasive English-speaking environment around them, we had difficulties persuading them to be interested in Chinese literature, outside the confines of their school curriculum. Nonetheless, their foundation in Chinese has become an asset in their adult life. They can hold their own in the spoken language, but would find it hard to compose a business letter in Chinese through lack of usage. This problem is widespread with their contemporaries who have similar educational and family backgrounds.

We have a grandson who will be two years old shortly. His parents have given my wife and I the unenviable task of making him bilingual. It is a very tough assignment, as we are with him only a couple of hours on most days. For the rest of the time, he is being bombarded with English sounds by his busy parents and his most devoted maternal grandparents. Fortunately, our perseverance is beginning to pay dividends. After eight months of coaxing him to get accustomed to hearing Mandarin sounds, he can now quite comfortably identify common everyday objects and numerals in fairly distinct Mandarin, much to our unconcealed delight. Letting him listen to Chinese nursery songs has helped in his learning process. Our son and daughter-in-law will soon have to find him a suitable kindergarten, where his interests in English and Chinese can be developed further in a creative and fun way. This is not an easy choice to make.

A recent authoritative British study has shown that a Mandarin speaker would utilise both lobes of his brain to comprehend the language, while an English speaker would use only one. It also claims that children in bilingual homes are more likely to develop their minds more vigorously, after they have attained proficiency in both languages. Another US study finds that for a child to benefit most from language learning, he should start before reaching three years old. Thereafter, his linguistic abilities would decrease as he gets older. For instance, a two-year old toddler can pick up language skills twice as quickly as an adult. In view that educational experts are unanimous that bilingualism helps stimulate a child’s intellectual development, discerning Singaporean parents should take note of this sound advice.

Like it or not, bilingualism is here to stay, as Singapore is a plural society, just as it has thrived in multi-ethnic Switzerland. A good knowledge of English, coupled with a firm grounding in one’s mother tongue, will provide a much needed cultural ballast for Singaporeans to take their deserved place under the sun. For Chinese Singaporeans, the mastery of both English and Chinese will certainly be a matchless combination to move forward in the more demanding world of the new millennium.

Lam Pin Foo
August 8, 2003

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