Alphabet soup

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 September, 2011, 12:00am


Yau Wing-yi knows the Japanese-language playgroup sessions her son attends are paying off when they visit the supermarket. Strolling down the aisle, four-year-old Chan Long-kiu points out the ichigo (strawberry), ringo (apple) and remon (lemon) to his mother.

Long-kiu seems to have a flair for languages, she says.

'He could rattle off all 26 letters of the English alphabet when he was one,' says Yau, a housewife who speaks Cantonese and English. Recognising her son's gift, she signed him up for a Japanese playgroup before he turned two. Now Long-kiu knows all 50 basic Japanese sounds and can sing Japanese nursery rhymes.

Yau has since also bought kits for him to learn Spanish and French.

'I often play the discs at home so that he can familiarise himself with different languages,' she says. 'It will be much easier if he wants to learn languages when he grows up.'

Government policy calls for literacy in two languages (English and Chinese) and fluency in three (English, Cantonese and Mandarin). However, eager to prime their children for the challenges of a globalised age, more parents like Yau are making their children pick up a fourth or even fifth language. This has turned the pre-school sector into multilingual learning hubs, with playgroups and kindergartens adding more languages to their usual curriculum.

However, forcing many language classes onto children may prove a hindrance if there is inadequate support outside the classroom.

At the Le Beaumont Language Centre, which offers programmes in five languages, classes are open to infants as young as one month old.

It's hard to imagine what babies can pick up before they can even say 'mama' or 'papa', but Le Beaumont founder Sam Chow Tung-shan insists that 'when it comes to language acquisition, the younger, the better'.

'Babies or toddlers have an instinct for language,' Chow says. 'While an adult often learns a language by building up a vocabulary and studying the grammar, a toddler just picks it up unconsciously through exposure.'

The notion that children are the best language learners is supported by studies, which show the number of synapses in a child's brain is much greater than an adult's, and these synapses or junctions between nerve cells are strengthened when a child has new experiences.

A former assistant commissioner for Labour, Chow says he did extensive research into childhood language acquisition before opening Le Beaumont in 2004.

'Rich exposure to languages stimulates the wiring of synapses in babies at the rate of 700 connections per second,' he says.

'Exposing a child at an early age to a different language helps create a database and pathway in the young brain. If he stops learning and picks it up later in life, the pathway would be reignited, and he would learn it faster and easier than those who are not exposed to it during childhood.'

Rightmind Kindergarten, where Chinese, English, Spanish and French are compulsory subjects, extends pupils' exposure by playing for them a CD with eight languages including Greek and Latin.

Rightmind principal Betty Ho Yung Ngar-ying says this introduction to a wide range of languages could ensure synapses flourish at the critical period before babies are 11 months old.

'The range of audible frequency at which a baby can hear is widest up to age 10 months. Every sound they hear connects the synapses. For those of us who learn languages after we grow up, we do it after the range of frequency has shrunk. That's why we cannot pronounce the 'r' sound in Spanish and the 'h' sound in German,' Ho says.

Many learning centres emphasise play as the key to toddlers picking up language skills.

'We learned our mother tongue without textbooks or exams. When it comes to teaching young learners, informal beats formal education hands down,' Chow says.

'Our baby learners are taken on a five nation 'tour' each week, with one day for one country. In each country, they are entertained by a local tour guide, the teacher, who sings and plays with them in the local language. If babies are placed with us before the nine-month cut-off point, they can learn to speak Putonghua, English, French, Spanish and Japanese by age two.'

At Rightmind, learning languages and musical appreciation go hand in hand. Ho says the children form choirs and stage frequent performances, learning to sing in different languages.

'They might sing opera in French or Spanish or a ballad in Putonghua. We don't just do nursery rhymes. If you remember the melody, the lyrics come to you naturally. Dancing and singing are also a fun way for children to learn.'

The Mandarin Town learning centre in Central also focuses on playful learning, with a special emphasis on the bond between parents and children. Outfitted with colourful swings, slides, a trampoline and a ball pool, the sprawling venue is full of gurgling babies and laughing children.

The youngsters learn through singing classic nursery rhymes, listening to stories and making artworks, says Mandarin Town founding partner Phoebe Wan Peng.

'The only way to get children to pay attention is to make things interesting,' she says. For instance, some games require the children to name their different body parts in Putonghua.

Equities trader Ko Yu-yin takes her two-year-old son Axel to Mandarin Town, and finds he learns best when playing games at the gym.

'He counts on the swing using Putonghua,' she says. 'He likes playing in the ball pool. He understands the Putonghua instructions from his teacher perfectly and dives in to look for balls of different colours as told. He doesn't feel that he is learning at all.'

Ko, who grew up in the US, adopts the One Person, One Language method (see below) to shore up her children's capacity to absorb different languages. She speaks only Putonghua to her two youngsters, who are learning French, Chinese and English.

'With my French husband talking to them in French, the children can associate a language with a parent. It gives them a sense of consistency and reduces the likelihood of them mixing words.'

At International Montessori School's toddler section, learning languages is an experience that engages all their senses - not only hearing, but also sight and touch.

'We get them to write Chinese characters in a sandbox, with their fingers fleshing out all the strokes in a character,' says Anne Sawyer, the school's founder.

'They say the word out loud, writing at the same time. In the process, a strong linkage is built between sound and symbol. Learning becomes a multi-sensory experience.'

While playgroup sessions help build a linguistic foundation, these must be backed up with plenty of input from parents at home before the child can become a competent user of the languages, says Professor David Li Chor-shing of the Centre for Research into Language Education in Multilingual Societies at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.

'An immersive environment must be provided at home,' he says. 'Local students attend English classes at school, but they don't use it at all beyond the classroom. That's why many fail to attain proficiency in the language eventually,' Li says.

The drive to give children multilingual training will backfire if it isn't complemented by adequate support, Li also warns.

'This is especially true for households where children do not have good access to the languages they are learning. A child won't grow up to be a polyglot by just joining playgroup sessions. This must be backed up by extensive use of the languages at home, at school or [in the] social environment.'

For instance, some parents who don't speak good English try to converse with their children only in English, but may mix up the usage or pronunciation themselves.

'Once children acquire [bad habits] such as accented or wrong English it is difficult to undo. Learning multiple languages without an immersive environment in all the tongues can also delay the development of speech patterns or literacy skills in English and Chinese.'

Few families can match the efforts of Alicia Garcia-Herrero and her husband Sergio Belza. The couple take great pains to create an immersive environment at home for their three children, who speak Spanish, German, French, English and Putonghua. They have set up a corner of their Clear Water Bay house as a language centre, stacked with language books and discs. Garcia-Herrero, chief economist for emerging markets at Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentari, also makes it a point to read stories and listen to tapes in different languages with the children every night after work.

'They are allowed to watch cartoons for 15 minutes before going to bed. I always make sure they watch them in the original language. They watch Pocoyo in Spanish and Bambi in English. They need to know that there's a culture behind [the cartoons].'

Whenever possible, Garcia-Herrero ropes in friends, tutors and others to help polish her children's language skills. When the family still lived in Spain, she hired a nanny specifically to speak Arabic to her oldest daughter, Ines.

'I wanted to open her ears to the many different sounds of Arabic which will allow her to speak well in other languages,' she says.

'Daughters of my French and German friends often come for three-month stays at our Clear Water Bay home. Language is all about human relationships. It's too artificial if you just learn it through school. It's powerful for children to have access to people from different cultures. They know they can only make friends with them if they can communicate in the languages.'

Chinese International School student Kameka Herbst's good command of Putonghua enabled her to befriend Chinese students she met on a school trip to Xian in May. 'They didn't know English so we could only communicate in Putonghua,' she says.

Kameka, 12, who reads and types in Chinese, attributes her growing command of the language to non-stop exposure.

'Even when I didn't have any Chinese homework for summer, I kept reading books about Chinese customs, myths and history,' she says. 'I love the story about the terracotta warriors the most.'

Embracing the different cultures behind each language gives children a huge incentive to get a good grasp of the languages, says Kameka's mother, psychologist Yvonne Becher. She is German and her husband Australian, so the family observes Christmas both ways - putting out stockings on December 6 as they do in Germany, for instance. And they join in local celebrations such as the Mid-Autumn Festival.

'The love of customs and culture behind languages is a big driving force for children to be good at [them],' Becher says.

Garcia-Herrero and Belza mostly speak to their children in Spanish, but trips abroad and cultural events, like foreign film festivals, ensure the children are exposed to the various cultures behind the languages they are learning.

Verbal remedies

For parents keen to see their children gain fluency in several languages, experts offer a few tips:

- Decide how many languages you want your child to learn. This depends on the amount of access in home, school and social environments.

- Adopt a language system at home. The most common and successful are One Person One Language (OPOL) and Minority Language at Home (ML@H). In the latter, the minority language is the only one used within the nuclear family; the child learns the majority language from his environment, such as from friends and grandparents. For example: a child in Hong Kong, both parents are native Hongkongers with a good command of English, but there is no English spoken in the area. Here, English is the minority language and Chinese is the majority language.

- Boost exposure - join playgroups, immersion programmes, get a nanny and invite foreign friends for long stays.

- Create an immersive environment at home with books, CDs and movies in different languages.

- Expose your children to the cultures behind the languages: visit cultural festivals, savour cuisines and travel overseas.