There is no doubt that fluency in a second language opens many doors, whether it be work opportunities, study options or travel. Some expat children are fortunate to be naturally multilingual and pick up languages through exposure at home, others will take the school path. Whatever way, maintaining or learning a language, can happen at Singapore’s diverse international schools. We asked the language experts at six schools about their school language programmes, and some of the commonly asked questions.
Stamford American International School
If I’m not a Mandarin speaker, how can I help my child learn the language at home?
“Language teachers at Stamford say it’s important for parents to support their child’s learning. One easy way to assist language development is to read to them (and with them) daily in English. In the bilingual programme, students complete tests in English and Mandarin, so you can help them practice their vocabulary to reinforce the concepts taught during the day. Research indicates that, with long-term commitment, students can achieve a high level of proficiency in the immersion language. Yes, that means daily practice!”
What’s on offer: At Stamford, children can start young and choose from daily Mandarin or Spanish from 18 months. Classrooms at the new Early Learning Village are purpose-built for learning. The bilingual Mandarin/English Program for students aged three to 10 years old is an opportunity for students to be fully immersed and develop bilingual, bi-literate and bi-cultural skills. There’s also the English as an Additional Language (EAL) Program which is available to students from five to 14 years, of any nationality, whose parents feel that a mastery of English would benefit them in their studies, and beyond.
I’ve read about “mother tongue” languages; what does that mean and how does it apply to my child?
“UWCSEA and many schools, including local schools, offer mother tongue programmes (also called ‘home language’) for the language other than English in which the child is most fluent. In some cases, students study it because they speak the language at home. Often, it’s because the child will move back to their original country at some point and need to continue their education (whether at school or university) in their ‘home language’. In May 2017, 123 UWCSEA students received bilingual International Baccalaureate Diplomas in 27 different languages.”
What’s on offer: The diversity of UWCSEA is breathtaking, with 69 languages spoken by the 99 nationalities represented across two campuses! UWCSEA language programmes extend from beginner – those who’ve never studied a second language before – to home language, with native speaker offerings from K1 all the way to the GCSE and IB Diploma. UWCSEA offers formal, taught courses in English (as a first or second language), Chinese, Spanish and French. Home language and certificate courses are offered in those languages, plus Dutch, German, Hindi, Korean, Japanese and Russian. There’s also a School-Supported Self Taught Language option available for students in Grades 9 – 12 to enable student to study in their mother tongue if no ‘taught’ course is offered.
Many parents don’t anticipate how difficult it is for children to hang on to their home language as the school language gradually dominates. Why should they persevere?
“Maintaining fluency in family languages is vital: not only does it help to anchor a child’s sense of identity as they move around the globe, it also ensures they maintain ties with family, and eventually study or work in their countries of origin. Surprisingly, there is a strong correlation between maintaining fluency in family languages and academic success in an additional language. So, it’s really worth the effort.”
What to expect: German and English are core languages at GESS and are offered at multiple levels of proficiency from preschool to Grade 12. All primary school students have the opportunity to attend Language Enrichment Programmes, joining fun, activity-centred groups supporting ten languages: Swedish, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Mandarin, Japanese, Turkish, Danish, Russian and Korean. From Grade 6, students choose from French, Mandarin and Spanish. In the European Section at GESS, students can study Danish or Dutch as mother tongue in both primary and secondary school.
Singapore American School
Learning Mandarin is a popular choice in Singapore. Why is it so difficult?
“Some of the challenge comes from having to learn and memorise so many characters and also the need for accurate mastery of the four tones for accurate pronunciation and meaning. This means significant time spent rote learning vocabulary and grammar rules and oral practice – the only way to develop your speaking and listening skills. At SAS, the emphasis is on interactive teaching – where teachers strive to speak only in Chinese during class and encourage students to communicate in the language as much as possible, about topics that are useful and of interest to them. This is important when many students don’t have the opportunity to speak at home.”
What’s on offer: The SAS World Languages programme offers daily Chinese and Spanish for Kindergarten to Grade 5 students. From August, SAS will introduce two full curriculum Chinese language immersion kindergarten classes. Each subsequent year, the Chinese bilingual programme will grow to add additional grade levels. In Middle School and High School Chinese, Spanish and French are taught at different competency levels. This year, SAS will introduce the Seal of Biliteracy (a US accreditation recognising fluency in reading, writing, listening and speaking their chosen language) for graduating High School students.
What techniques are suitable for teaching languages to preschoolers?
“The fun way to teach children in early childhood is through sensorial stimulation, exploration through play and learning experiences. In bilingual immersion, all the teaching, as well as the usual conversation, is done in the language the kids are learning. Joining extracurricular language classes after school and reading books are great mediums to learn language in a visual context. Exposing children to the spoken language either at home or organising play, trips or travel where they hear more of another language are other useful experiences.”
What’s on offer: Mandarin is taught from 18 months at White Lodge, with 60 minute lessons daily. From Nursery (from 3.5 years) the Mandarin framework is taught in line with the Singapore Ministry of Education’s Mandarin curriculum. The aim is to equip students with the basic skills required in preparation for their transition to a local primary school or international school. Students typically graduate at six years with much confidence in spoken and written mandarin.