BY JUNE CHEONG
Babies start to pick up languages from the day they are born. They also do not differentiate a first from a second language.
'Recent research suggests that bilingual exposure should be introduced from birth to 10 years old,' said Ms Thow Mei Kuen, a senior speech therapist at the rehabilitation centre at Mount Alvernia Hospital.
Babies are born able to distinguish between languages but such ability rapidly deteriorates by their first birthday or before they start speaking.
Consistent exposure and one-on-one interaction are key to enabling your baby to learn more than one language.
Ms Huang Ying, head of Chinese language at Julia Gabriel Centre for Learning and Chiltern House, said: 'The baby's brain needs personal interaction to soak in a new language.
'If you speak a second language, use it at home. You can also find a playgroup or caregiver from whom your child can pick up another language. You will be surprised at how they soak it up like sponges.'
Ms Thow emphasised the importance of repeating a word in different languages so that the baby learns to associate those words with an object.
She said: 'For example, you may point to a shoe and name it in your mother tongue. You could then show your baby the same shoe and name it in English.'
As language is acquired through immersion, a child will easily learn a second language through songs, stories, games and play.
Ms Huang said: 'All these fun activities will spark the child's interest in learning and enable him to absorb the language more easily.'
Is it more effective to teach babies language through speech or word recognition?
Ms Fiona Walker, principal director of Julia Gabriel Centre for Learning and Chiltern House, said: 'The most effective way to teach a baby language is by talking to him, reading to him and sharing music and poetry with him.
'Hearing the language in context and with meaning enables babies and children to develop and expand their vocabulary and understanding. Word recognition is meaningless if the child has not heard the word spoken and in context.'
Of course, parents should not push their tiny tots too hard.
Ms Hamimah Ahmat, a senior speech and language therapist at the department of child development at KK Women's & Children's Hospital, said: 'Many studies have reported that bilingualism in a child is a boon, not a bane.
'However, for a child who has difficulty communicating, we advise parents to use only one language.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.