Our Bilingual Futures: The science of raising bilingual children (Q&A)
So just to get the ball rolling, I will start off with the first question. And it is, "will learning more than one language slow down overall language development for my child?" Does anyone want to take this? Prof Suzy? Dr Suzy Styles: Hi so this is a wonderful question and we know lots of parents ask this question and it's a great sign that you really care for your kids and you want to help them out as best you can. And the first way of answering this question is to look at the kind of research that has been done in the past in those majority monolingual countries and when we looked at the research from overseas, sometimes some reports of language use suggest that kids who are learning two or more languages at the same time might begin to do their talking at a slightly later age and this might be because they're handling the way that language sounds in one language and the way that language sounds in another language and that those two sound systems might be kind of confusing for how the mouth is going to manage to produce both sets of sounds. Now this is a very minor delay; most people wouldn't even notice it and in general it's only really a delay in when kids feel confident to start talking around others not so much about what they're understanding when others speak to them or what they're able to do with their linguistic thinking. So from that perspective, for children who are growing up in a monolingual majority context sometimes educators can feel very nervous about this delay but there's not really any evidence to date that suggests that this tiny little slowdown is a lasting effect or that it's actually a problem for the children themselves. The other way we can answer this question is
to look at a community like Singapore where the majority of children have grown up with more than one language going on around them and many of the adults in our audience, if you look around at your neighbors in the audience you may have grown up in a multilingual household yourself and have been the product of a multilingual exposure during your early years and as a... once again, it seems to be the case that even if there are some very very minor slowdowns in the rate at which speech is produced, it doesn't seem to last long and it doesn't seem to affect us into our later years of development. So I hope that gives a perspective from the early childhood side. Anything else you would like to add? Dr Beth O'Brien: Yeah I think I might just add that as children get a little older some studies also suggest that the rate of vocabulary acquisition, so the rate at which their learning works and building their own vocabulary, may be a little slower when children are learning two languages, or I shouldn't say slower, if you measure their vocabulary language in one of their languages that vocabulary size might be smaller than monolingual peers but if you mentioned the word knowledge across all of their known languages then they're actually developing at the same rate as their monolongual peers so that means they're acquiring the same number of words because as a child learning one language it's just that their known words are spread across their different languages.
Prof Annabel Chen: also from the brain perspective, just to let you know, our brain is actually a miraculous organ. We can learn anything so it doesn't matter how many languages that they can learn. It's just that sometimes some networks take longer to build up than others so that's why you can see delay and all that, you know, they sort of normal delays they are not picking up as quickly as other kids especially at a very very early age but then they will quickly pick up later on so it's just individual differences. Also coming from the clinical perspective, I'm also a clinical neuropsychologist, so I often get asked, right, what if my child is having difficulty in learning? That will become a factor. So if your child definitely has a difficulty in learning language then yes we want to focus on one language first so we're going to overwhelm your kid and trying to learn something else when we haven't built up that foundational part of it. But most of us we don't have difficulties, it's just that we will need a little bit more time to learn different languages. It's fine. I mean, our brain can handle it. Dr Suzy Styles: if I can jump in with one more follow-up to Prof Annabel's point about if a child is having difficulty learning their whichever languages used most at home, then maybe they can focus their attention on just one language. We should also mention that there is a new line of research that's coming
out quite recently which is investigating what's going on for kids who have other kinds of developmental differences, so kids who might be at risk of developing autism or another kind of developmental difference, and for children who have these kinds of developmental differences or delays, there's actually very good research to show that using all of your languages together with children with these kinds of differences actually can be beneficial because it can help a child to be more fully engaged with the whole range of family activities and the full repertoire of linguistic resources going on in the house so in the special case of a child who might be struggling with their language development in one language we might want to exercise caution or communicate with some speech and language practitioners for specific guidance but if we have a case where a child might be having social or other kinds of delays in their development, then actually a multilingual environment can be very enriching for that child as well. Okay thank you. So I will ask the second question. Some parents have told us, "if I'm not confident in my language skills, right, how can I support my child in learning another language?" Dr Beth O'Brien: Sure! I think... so some, you know, in many families that we talk to and through our research there's oftentimes multiple generations in their homes so there's always good opportunities if the parent maybe it doesn't feel as secure in their proficiency and they're not at home there might be an opportunity for a relative either in the home or a relative who you regularly visit as a family who could provide some of that input there's also resources that you could use like books or electronic story books where the words could be pronounced by the device and then you can just reinforce that.
So if you're not sure in other words how to pronounce the words properly types of tools to learn together with your child, that's one way, and there's other opportunities for communities as well so there's some community centers that often will have either programs or activities where children who were in the extended community outside the family Dr Suzy Styles: so in addition to the resources that Dr Beth has mentioned I like to think about how a family can almost form a catalog of what linguistic resources are available to them from both people and some of these external resources like films and videos and books and things like these as well and keeping in mind that for very young children the most powerful kind of input is input that is socially relevant to them one of the things we can think about is whether the materials or the resources that we're putting together are age appropriate and engaging for kids. So we might think about books and TV and movies and things like that as being part of a child's passive exposure but we can also go out of our way to find things like age-appropriate YouTube clips that a child might be really interested in paying attention to in a meaningful way. The other thing that we shouldn't forget is the opportunities that come in the digital world. We know that sometimes we might have an extended family network who we don't get
to spend much time with face-to-face but if our extended family network are very rich in their other language skills and you want that as part of the portfolio of skills that your child may have access to, then introducing Zoom interactions as part of your child's language diet might be a really good way of supplementing or boosting up those engaging so socially relevant exposures to the full range of languages that you're aiming for. Thank you. I'm going to open the floor to our parents if you have any questions? Parent: Yeah so I think I learned something new, 'translanguaging', it's a complex term but apparently in my own [home] I speak Chinese to my son exclusively. My wife say English. So it comes to me that
I had to believe that in order to be effective bilingual, we shouldn't translanguage so because I mean in Singapore if we translanguage it's fine because if I talk to someone in Singapore they'll probably understand me if I mixed Malay or Chinese. But if I talked to someone from say China who speak exclusively in Chinese I think it doesn't work. So my question would be then is my way of raising my son preparing him to be effective bilingual? I mean effective bilingual to me means that we speak that language just using the language and I think it'll I mean it'll be more difficult next time because you have some business languages that you need to use so yeah and that's my question on that yeah.
Are you gonna take this Dr Suzy? Dr Suzy Styles: Translanguaging is I think as I mentioned earlier a skill that's very poorly understood by the academic community who have historically studied only one language at a time so I think one of the first things that I want to mention is that many of us have grown up or been trained in a discipline that told us that it's dangerous or incorrect to use our languages together and that's a perspective that comes from monolingual communities. Now, I totally take your point that when we reach adulthood and in our professional lives we might want to be able to separate out those languages so that we can do our communication effectively in a business context or something similar to that but it's not necessarily the case that we have to do that from the start. So we know from the experience of Hispanic communities in the US and Indigenous communities in the north of Australia that it can be quite afflictive during early childhood to use the combination of linguistic resources that is most natural, most engaging, most fun, and most connected to the community while children are still developing their language skills and they can go on to develop proficiency in a more formal kind of code switching as they grow older. So if what works for you and your family is to speak one language at a time when you're communicating with your parent that can be one pathway to effective bilingualism but what I want to share with our community is that other pathways are also possible and they're not necessarily damaging or dangerous for your children. Dr Beth O'Brien: so we've done a few studies I'll just mention two, one we look at this was for older children in kindergarten so we looked at the classroom behaviors in kindergarten classroom and when a teacher tended to use language switching themselves or translanguaging themselves we've found that the output of the children tended to also have more of these types of language switches whereas the teachers who switch less, their students also switch less. But that could be part of the classroom environment which is children develop expectations of what's acceptable and what's not acceptable based on what the teacher is doing so I think what Dr Suzy's mentioning, the earlier years, it's not necessarily bad if you're switching. Children are observed to naturally in their
own speech switch even when the parents aren't so I think it's part of a natural developmental phase that they would go through when they're acquiring two languages. The other thing is within the context of Singapore what we've also found is that because the school system, once a child gets into the school system, they will have, you know, the support in the school system for their English still and that's also true maybe more so also in the larger community that English has support. They'll get plenty of exposure to English they'll learn and they'll think in English when they get to school so it was actually the more input you know regardless of which family members gave it but the quantity of the input in the home in Mother Tongue would actually help them to achieve more or learn more words and build a larger vocabulary and eventually stronger proficiency in Mother Tongue whereas if with using more of the Mother Tongue language at home did not negatively impact their English proficiency, sorry to use double negatives, but in other words it doesn't hurt to use Mother Tongue, the English skills, but if you're using predominantly more English at home it may not give them enough input in Mother Tongue for them to develop their Mother Tongue skills as well as their English if that makes sense. Do we have other questions from anyone else in the audience? Parent: Yeah how do you incorporate bilingualism particularly in the environment of working parents? That's part one of the question. Two, where the effort comes from one person and of course the motivation because for myself I'm effective in English but Mandarin is theoretical so these are the three parts. Maybe we start off by addressing how do we help our child when you know that most of the parents in Singapore have working parents? Prof Annabel Chen: Yeah this is a reality. Perhaps Dr Suzy and Dr Beth would have different perspectives.
I myself is also a working parent so yes indeed I know and especially when your kid is in school they're away from you the whole day right so I think spending time together is very precious. So for example making a routine like having at least one meal a day together like dinner making it like a very special time where it is expected everybody is at the table not having devices and that's the tricky one while we are eating but just communicating with each other, I think that's one way to communicate but learn about what's going on with your kid as well but also using language. So it's like for example if mainly now we're using English then [inaudible] from 0% to 8% Prof Annabel Chen: yeah fully understand that so at least have that routine first and then the other will be tricky because of like maybe we want to communicate in the Mother Tongue language the Mandarin, Tamil or Malay... it is yeah what your mummy speaks, but also your daddy, It is tricky. It helps if you have a partner who can also speak in that language because when kids are a little bit older, when they're in school, one of the ways is learning together as well where you could take the opportunity like okay let's try for this session just to speak Mandarin together. It's not easy. It's actually quite tricky. We actually have that before like
but it's actually instituted by my son. It's like just speak Chinese today. I'm doing dinner and if like if you slip into translanguaging oops you know we get a point down it becomes a game. And it's tricky it's tricky but there are other opportunities like what Dr Beth has mentioned maybe during the weekends to try and immerse in other activities that may be more immersive and you know just learning Mandarin or learning Tamil but if there's activities that you can be together with your child to interact that will be good as well. Dr Beth O'Brien: Maybe in general, for any language, it's it's not necessarily the amount of time that you spend with your child but quality, right, so like Prof Annabel mentioned if you only have a little bit of time you mark out a space where you do things actively together so you're engaged and you know whether it's over a meal and have some conversation without any digital devices that's really important and bedtime stories or story time anytime you can squeeze it in, things that would allow you to do some of the types of conversations Dr Suzy showed earlier on where you have more diversity of the language that you you're using different words so it's not the amount of input but it's also the quality of input. Parent: Do you think for me to immerse them and ease them into trying out the Mother Tongue language that is I speak Mandarin for example so I speak in Mother Tongue and then my child replies to me in English at first, then, you know, it'll ease the child, is it okay for that or you think it's actually better to be a purist? Dr Beth O'Brien: It's probably different perspectives but I think naturally that...
Parent: Anyway at the end of the day the goal is to have effective bilingualism but maybe it's the shorter route? Or longer route? I mean, not to say passion, but learning the language, using the language is probably a lifestyle. Dr Suzy Styles: so if I can add one more perspective that might be helpful. I like to think about what makes social sense for a young child and what might help them really want to engage with a language from their own social value perspective and by social value I mean to put it in really plain terms what do kids think is cool right now? So when we think about what motivates a six-year-old or a nine-year-old it's not necessarily having a polite chit-chat with Grandma that is the most exciting thing in their week. They might quite enjoy that and find it rewarding but perhaps the thing that they find really really cool right now is that girl who lives in the next block that they sometimes see at the playground who's maybe just like a year older and has a really nice dress and you know they can see that this person has value in their social world and that they might want to be or behave like that child. So from this perspective one of the challenges that parents may face is that if the Mother Tongue languages are only being used by elder generations that's not necessarily the most exciting social context for a young child to want to be part of in their sense of identity and autonomy. So from that perspective maybe
we can think about things like wouldn't it be cool if Elsa from Frozen spoke Mandarin some of the time or Malay? Wouldn't it be cool if some of our favorite cartoon characters the ones that our kids identify with and sort of really want to see themselves as wouldn't it be cool if we could imagine those worlds incorporating the linguistic identities that are valuable to the rest of the family? So I want to sort of put out the idea here that we have to engage with the social motivations of little kids and one way that we can do that is watching cartoons with the language settings flipped so that our kids might be able to sort of have a richer imaginary life in these other languages at an age-appropriate juncture. So for example, to put it in plain terms, if I play [inaudible], I translate to English? Because her vocab is not that level to understand. Dr Suzy Styles: Sure! So one of the things that's quite interesting is when kids have the opportunity to be immersed in a language environment they might be able to develop up their linguistic knowledge or if kids are able to watch a cartoon in both languages but some of the time they're watching it in Mandarin then their knowledge of what's actually going on in the story might help carry them over to map those word meanings for the words they don't understand. It's not always a challenge to not understand every word that you're hearing at a time and in fact it can be quite motivating if you are most of the way into your understanding and still learning alongside then it can be a great hook for kids who want to be able to speak like Ariel in Tamil for example if they have some conceptual knowledge already about the kinds of words that she might be saying and then they have this new linguistic token that they might be able to map to. Dr Beth O'Brien: And I've just said that when they're developing their languages they will first understand more than they can say you have to you know give them a little bit of runway to get them to learn how to speak as well as I can understand and then maybe also as a follow-up to any of the things that you had them view so whether it's a movie or a cartoon it's also good to process what instead of just posssibly watching and absorbing and hearing the words but also get them to process afterwards so maybe talk about the program with them so get them to summarize you know what happened or what did she say or how did she feel so get them to talk about it in either language so they can process their understanding of what they heard. Parent: Got it. Emcee: Thank you. Do we have any other questions?
Parent: Hi everyone actually I don't have a question for me I just wanted to add on to the worrying mother's concerns yeah because I'm also a very busy mother. I'm a primary school teacher. So I don't have a lot of time to spend with my children and what I usually do it's just like what the professor shared so we start off with what they are interested in so maybe for my daughter she's interested in like The Little Mermaid so she has already watched like a short snippet on YouTube on The Little Mermaid then I'll say oh why not we find a video that is in Chinese about The Little Mermaid story it might not be exactly the same but let's like watch it in Chinese because I want to learn how the story goes in Chinese too yeah so then we will stop at different points and yeah talk about it talk about the language yeah and subsequently based on her interest how I incorporate all this so that there's more exposure would be bedtime because bedtime she likes to [ask] "can you read to me?" and I'll be, like, huh, I have to think about a story to entertain her and I'm not as creative as the father. The father can like just come up with stories very easily. I was like, why not I just play The Little Mermaid? And she was, like,
"oh okay sure" so it will be playing at the background and she doesn't need to like remember word for word what exactly happened but because we went through it already she's very interested to, like, "oh what is this part talking about?" and she could relate to like the background noises and all and then maybe the change in character tone that she's like "I think this is the father talking." "I think this is like the The Little Mermaid answering" or "oh this is the yangyangyang" I think the dolphin or something her good friend yeah so she'll be like oh mummy yangyangyang and I'll be like yangyangyang yeah. So yeah that's how I kind of take advantage of the very little time we have to keep the exposure going and another way that I think it's very simple is that you know how sometimes because our main language is English we don't want them to understand what we say. So we will talk in Chinese to each other. Actually that's the way to expose them to Chinese. They'll be like what are you talking about? Why are you speaking in Chinese? But they actually do hear us speaking in Chinese even though it's not to them but that role modeling in the background actually is a way to expose them to the language already so you don't have to be very worried that like you're not speaking it very often because I'm also a case in hand that I'm very worried like do I need to speak to her constantly in Chinese I'm sorry in Mandarin in order for her to be effectively bilingual? But actually for them they really do need to listen and they don't have to like like be exposed to the proper pronunciation you know like it must be PRC type of Chinese in order for them to understand. Yeah so just do whatever you can and I always say just base it on their interests. So if their interest is like The Wizard of Oz for example then I'm like let's look on YouTube if we can hear the Wizard of Oz story in Chinese. Yeah then
that's one way to like take advantage of it but you don't have to force yourself to like oh let me translate this story that she likes in Chinese on your own. There's always resources out there yeah so don't worry we are all here in it together. Definitely. Dr Suzy Styles: The other thing just following on from this comment is co-watching of videos together can help bridge some of those gaps so if the level of language is a little bit more advanced then your child is understanding but they can always ask you. Top tip for parents is if you can find a a different language version of a video that you want to watch together that has English subtitles then even if you as a parent are not feeling super confident in your sophisticated vocabulary for the other language that you're trying to support then you also have a little bit of text support that might help you help your child understand a little bit more about what's going on. So watching these kinds of resources together is a great way to sort of boost up the amount of exposure and the kinds of conversations that you can have. So thank you very much for providing that example too.
Thank you. Okay I think we will end off just with one last query if anyone that would like to ask? Parent: Right my question is regards to two questions so the first question is because we do translanguaging very often at home so one practice that sometimes we cannot I mean we are very used to is that when we try to explain a term in Mandarin we would use English and then it goes the other way round as well but I do realize that in my language learning journey then it becomes such that when I mean that we will start to think for example I'm dominant in Chinese I will tend to write or reply in English using a Chinese thinking or grammar structure or yeah so I want to know is that something we need to correct in our child because the way you know when we speak you know the sentence structure and everything in Mandarin is very different from English so yeah that's my question. Dr Annabel Chen: Dr Suzy will give you other insights on this but I just want to come back I think it's a really interesting phenomenon we all struggle with like I think the gentleman actually started off with that like do I speak one language? It depends on the context right and also the mom talked about like I don't want to kill the passion of learning that my kids have going on so it really depends on the context like either just playing around you know and communicating translanguaging it's fine but let's say the context where we are trying to speak more fluently in one language then we want to focus the playing around to just speaking one language. How do I explain this term using the same language? So the thing is becoming more like a game to make it still interesting for your kid but not be like you know forcing it like a tzar you'd have to say something then only one language it depends on the context I think that the key point is like yeah we don't want to kill the learning passion in our kid we want to foster and nourish that so I'll give it to Dr Suzy to talk more about translanguaging. Dr Suzy Styles: Sure! So one of the other properties of the Singapore language context that I find really interesting is there is a mode of speaking in Singapore that is not really 100% English and it's not really 100% Chinese and it's not really necessarily mixing between them and it's sometimes being called Singlish where we use English words but the grammar might be more consistent with the way that a sentence would go together in Chinese and this has sometimes been described as a phenomenon that has come out of the deep language contact between the two languages and it's a very special property of communication in Singapore in informal settings. Now it's not necessarily a sign that you're mixed up between your Chinese and your English but maybe you're using this mode of communication in a context where that mode of communication is appropriate. So whenever we use expressions like 'can' at the end of a sentence
or when someone asks us a question and we reply with 'can', now that's not what we would consider a well-formed utterance of formal English or of Singapore Standard English but it's a perfectly grammatical sentence in the informal variety of Singapore English so I guess what I'm trying to highlight here is if we sort of take a different view of these kinds of translanguaging behaviors we can see that there might be norms that are shared by the community that are appropriate in some contexts. Now just like you as an adult might have some awareness of when you're doing this your kid will also be developing some sense of when it's appropriate to use this speech. Now when they're younger they might kind of sometimes pick the wrong mode of speech for the wrong context or maybe if they're a little bit stressed or there's a lot going on and they feel the pressure to communicate is more important than checking whether the mode of communication is the "correct one" they might come out with an utterance that doesn't feel right in that context. But this is another form of code switching. Selecting the way that
you use your language for the context that you're using your language in and as they grow and work their way through the school system one of the goals of the school system is helping kids figure out the formal variety the sort of expected standard syntax of English grammar because English is the dominant language in the school system throughout Singapore you effectively don't have to worry about whether the English will come out whether your kids will gain an awareness of that formal variety of English by the time they get to the end of the school system they will have been exposed to tons and tons and tons of that and they will have been helped to figure out ways of aligning with that norm. On the other side, your communication in your family and in your community is allowed to be joyous and playful and familiar and cozy and to have those fun informal sentence structures as well. So that would kind of be my perspective on the fact that you're not necessarily as an individual making mistakes when you formulate your sentences like this. You're actually aligning to a norm that is shared by a lot of Singaporeans in a way of constructing informal speech in this Singlish way so it's not wrong to do so with your kids but perhaps as Prof Annabel was suggesting one of the things that you can do is practice switching on or off those different registers in different contexts together or give demonstrations of how you might say it differently in a different context and that might help your kids navigate that space well Thank you. I would like to thank all of you for just joining us for our Q&A session and for our entire event.