Why the Effort to be Good at Two Languages?

by Education Cube, posted on May 13, 2016

Why the Effort to be Good at Two Languages?

By Education Cube
13 May 2016 

Four Official Languages

Striking the bilingual balance

The idea that bilingualism is more advantageous than being monolingual is not new. Here in Singapore, bilingualism has always been a pillar of our education system – even as many students may have struggled over the years to excel academically in both English and their Mother Tongue subjects together.

And the numbers could be increasing. The population census of 2010, for example, showed that 51.9% of Chinese Singapore children aged 5 to 14 used English most frequently at home. A decade before, the figure was just 35.8%.

The academic advantage of excelling in Mother Tongue

So why do parents push their children to excel in Mother Tongue? Students who pass Higher Chinese are given up to 3 bonus points to their Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) aggregate score for admission to Special Assistance Plan (SAP) Schools at secondary level. So a score of 257, for example, can get boosted to 260. Separately, students who pass Higher Mother Tongue (HMT), whether in Chinese, Malay or Tamil, have the option to continue taking HMT in secondary school.

This might not sound like much but it gets more interesting at ‘O’ Levels. Students who pass HMT are given a concession of a two-point deduction in their L1R5 score when applying to Junior Colleges (JCs), especially the top JCs. Their cut-offs for admission are so competitive that a traditionally perfect L1R5 score of 6 can be insufficient. A two-point deduction could help lower an L1R5 score of 6 to 4. Here is where the L1R5 cut-offs are for the top five JCs this year:


JC Admission Arts Stream Science Stream/ 
Cut-off Points (2016) International Baccalaureate
Raffles Institution 4 3
Hwa Chong Institution 4 4
Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) - 5
Victoria Junior College 6 5
National Junior College 6 5


Shifting the learning approach

Of late, the Government has recognised the Mother Tongue learning struggle more seriously. Students are now increasingly exposed to more interactive methods than rote learning.

More focus is on the use and application of languages through activities like role-playing, and show-and-tell. Learning materials include newspaper reports to provide real-life contexts for discussion. Outside the classroom, some schools even organise language immersion trips to schools in China for their students.

So what can parents do to help their children?

1.      Start early as the vital time for language acquisition is from birth to age 6. There are language immersion classes for those as young as 18 months!

2.      Surround your home with materials – find digital apps that support language development, borrow DVDs from the National Library, or surf YouTube and Youku videos. 

3.      Set expectations – For example, a child should be expected to respond in the language they are spoken to, or set aside certain times, days or even places when only a particular language can be used.

4.      Lead by example – any time spent interacting with your child in a particular language will strengthen the child’s ability to use and apply it. Pick up the language too as this encourages your child to be equally good, if not better than you. Research has also shown a correlation between the volume of speech spoken by parents in the earliest years and the child later on.

5.      Travel when you can – trips to where the Mother Tongue language is spoken natively can be one of the most powerful ways to promote language development, if you can afford the time and money. If possible, attend a class for a day or two.At home, use play dates or get-togethers with family and friends who speak the target language.



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Why the Baby Brain can Learn Two Languages at the Same Time (TheConversation.com, 15 Apr 2016)

Internalising Language Through Interaction (The Straits Times, 11 Apr 2016)

The Superior Social Skills of Bilinguals (The New York Times, 11 Mar 2016)

The Battle to Speak Mandarin (The Straits Times, 29 Feb 2016)

Off to the Park to Pick Up Mandarin (The Straits Times, 1 Feb 2016)

Little Change in Junior College Entry Scores this Year (The Straits, Times, 29 Jan 2016)

More Funding for Learning of Mother Tongue Languages in Singapore (The Straits Times, 5 Sep 2015)