Desiree Ng is effectively bilingual. So are her kids, Ashley and Matthew. Her secret: Hardly any English at home. She speaks only Mandarin with them, lets them watch Disney Channel cartoons in Mandarin and buys learning materials from China.
“My mother spoke Mandarin to us, and exposed us to Mandarin books, speech and drama classes, and shows from China. We had very little exposure to English outside of school,” she says. “But in school, we had plenty of exposure to English. Many of my classmates spoke English.I never had problems picking it up.”
Desiree’s unconventional language teaching methods have worked so well that she has turned it into a successful business – Bibinogs, which offers bilingual and pure Mandarin classes for preschoolers. She has since sold the business.
It’s food for thought for parents who fret that their children will be penalised during the PSLE exams because of weak Mother Tongue scores.
Limited exposure to one language in favour of another may seem counter-intuitive when you hope to nurture a bilingual child. But Desiree explains: “In Singapore, it is much easier to learn English by default. Once children start schooling, they will be constantly exposed to it.
“Parents can try to provide a balance by giving children as much exposure to their mother tongue as they get from English.”
Related story: Diana Ser’s top tips for teaching kids Chinese
Separate your languages Put your child in a pure Mandarin environment as much as possible. “Children need to recognise ownership over the language or they will always fall back on the language they are comfortable with,” says Desiree. “When they have a teacher who speaks only Mandarin to them and nothing else, they will recognise that Mandarin ‘belongs’ to this teacher and speak only Mandarin to her.”
Make it relevant Take the language out of the classroom. It is easier if the parents can speak Mandarin because parroting is a very natural way for a child to pick up a language. But if the parents aren’t Mandarin speakers, the child can play teacher. “I have a Caucasian student who attends my pure Mandarin classes. When she goes out with her mother, she points things out in Mandarin and tries to teach her mummy.”
Combine it with fun Expose your child to things that interest him, but do it in Mandarin. “My kids love cartoons and they are not going to reject a chance to watch one. Disney Channel is dual sound and I let them watch it in Mandarin. Once they associate the things they like with the language, it doesn’t become a chore to learn it.”
Give up Don’t pull your child out of Mandarin preschool classes just because it clashes with something else. “If you pull your child out for tae kwon do, for instance, he is not going to take Mandarin seriously because he sees it as something he can give up.”
Be impatient When a child feels pressured, learning stops being fun. “Many parents prefer seeing tangible results. They want to see how many words the child can write or speak. Language is not picked up that quickly. Start the child young, be consistent and he will definitely learn, even if you don’t see immediate results.”