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Learning Chinese in Singapore- could a bilingual school programme be right for your child?

There seems to be a constant buzz in the parenting community about their children’s language abilities. And nothing beats a bilingual programme (also referred to as dual language or immersion programme) in achieving true proficiency.

Only a handful of international schools in Singapore offer a genuine bilingual programme, but would this kind of intensive learning at school be right for your child? Would it cause them to lag behind, affect their comprehension and proficiency in their home language? And would they cope, even if they couldn’t speak a word of Chinese?

Australian mum Kim Kenny Faulkner comes from a multicultural family (her mother is Malaysian Chinese and her father Australian) and she wishes she had learnt Chinese at a young age. We spoke to her about her decision to enroll her boy’s Hudson (6) and Cade (5) in the Canadian International School bilingual Chinese-English programme.

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Why did you choose a bilingual programme and not daily lessons or a tutor?
We felt that in a bilingual programme they would spend more time learning naturally throughout the day across different mediums (singing, stories, writing, drawing) and topics, which would help build a strong foundation in both Chinese and English.

Were you concerned that their progress might be wasted if you left Singapore?
No. Chinese is fast becoming a language of the future. Wherever we move to next, it is very likely there will be an opportunity for them to continue with it. Learning another language provides other great benefits too; the teachers at CIS told us that the constant switching between the two languages will help our kids improve their practical skills, especially their problem solving and task switching.

Why did you choose CIS?
CIS is currently one of the only international schools providing a bilingual programme for children in primary school. The boys were already at CIS (in their mainstream/IB programme) during our first year in Singapore, so we were confident that it would be a high quality programme, taught by experienced, passionate teachers. It’s aligned to the IB programme, children can be enrolled up to Grade 5 and then afterwards, join an accelerated programme.


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What is a days’ learning like in a CIS Bilingual Programme classroom?
There are two qualified teachers for every class, one native English teacher and one native Chinese teacher. This is unlike many other schools where the English teacher takes the lead and a Chinese assistant supports them. All Units of Inquiry are taught in both languages. For example, in Hudson’s G1 class they are just about to start a Unit Of Inquiry called ‘Who we are’ where they will learn the different parts of the body in Chinese, and then how the brain functions in English.

Were you concerned starting in the programme at such a young age would affect their English skills and development?
There’s plenty of evidence behind the positive effects of kids learning languages when they are young. We felt this would be the easiest time for them to learn. We also spoke at length with their class teachers before enrolment; they told us that from their experience, in the first year the students’ language skills would probably not develop as quickly as those in the mainstream programme, but by the third year, they would be at the same level.

As you don’t speak Chinese, were you concerned about how you’d support your children with their learning?
CIS told us not to worry about this, that the most important thing we could do was to focus on supporting them with their English. I did take weekly private Chinese lessons for a year, which has helped me to understand their learning challenges. Plus, they love correcting me with my Chinese words during conversations around the dinner table!

Do they have more homework?
At this early stage for my older son’s G1 class they have just started getting homework which includes Chinese homework. I would assume it would be the same amount as those following the mainstream programme.


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A year since enrolling, what sort of progress have you noticed?
They started not being able to speak a word of Chinese, and after one year they can now follow their teacher’s’ instructions and have enough vocabulary to express themselves confidently during class. Their English learning skills have increased and been enhanced. We think learning in both Chinese and English has helped them think differently, a great benefit in the early years of their education!

To enrol your child in the programme in JK, SK and G1, they must be fluent in either English or Chinese. From Grade 2 onwards, they must be fluent in either English or Chinese and have a certain level of proficiency in their second language.

The Canadian International Bilingual Programme is available at both  Lakeside and Tanjong Katong campuses for students aged 4 to 9 years (Junior Kindergarten to Grade 4). Grade 5 classes open August 2016.