Big on Bilingualism in the Early Years

Big on Bilingualism in the Early Years

Monday, 16 September 2019

Dr Sun He (Sabrina) is trained in China, the US and Netherlands as an applied linguist. In 2016, she joined the Office of Education Research as a researcher in early bilingualism and second language development. Her research interests lie in the area of bilingual and biliteracy learning and teaching, the use of electronic devices to promote early bilingualism, and the relationship between bilingualism and psychological traits. Sun He was recently also featured in various local media such as Channel News Asia, The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao on her research work in these areas.


Q: Share with us a little bit about yourself and how your interest in the area of early childhood bilingualism came about.

I am an applied linguist trained in China, the US and Netherlands. My PhD topic was on early foreign language acquisition and I focused on children from 3–5 years old on how they learn another language in instructional settings.

I feel that this topic is very important because it touches upon a lot of aspects. If you talk about early childhood education and bilingualism, you will touch upon education policy, family language policy and child development in general because language is part of their cognitive development. As such, my work is very cross-disciplinary.

Q: Is it safe to assume that to be bilingual means one have to be able to converse effectively in both languages? Can one be considered bilingual if he or she is not equally competent in both languages?

Bilingualism is not a binary in which it is a 0 or 1; it is a continuum. You can be a balanced bilingual, which is a dream because you can use both languages equally well in all settings. But in most cases, you have a language that you are slightly stronger at compared to the other one.

For example, you could be very capable as an English writer but you probably couldn’t produce similar nice writings in your mother tongue language, which is very common around you. However, this is still quite acceptable because language is something we need to keep practising. And without a good environment to do so, you can gradually lose your interest and motivation to keep it alive.

So there are many, many different types of bilinguals and what type of bilingual you are depends on, first of all, how frequently you use both languages and how much input you have from both languages. Sometimes, your proficiency is also a good indicator of the extent of your bilingualism.

We always talk about proficiency but now there is a lot of cognitive science and neuroscientists that prove if you want to connect bilingualism to, maybe, the brain executive function, it is not just about proficiency per se, it is about the daily usage and practice of the language.

Q: Is it also true that there is a crucial window period in which an individual can pick up a second language better?

For early language development, we use the term “sensitive period” to describe such a window. Children are found to have a sensitive ear when they are younger. There are some experiments that shows that before 1 year old, children are very sensitive to different phonemes from different languages. Some languages do not necessarily exist in their daily conversations but they just have this sensitivity. But gradually, your brain will lateralize so children begin to have a “favourite” kind of pronunciations that is similar to the major language around them so gradually lose the sensitivity to some phonemes.

This is very interesting because in some of the studies that follows the immigrant population in the US, researchers found that if people migrate to a new country after certain age, it is very difficult to attain nativelike pronunciation and grammar despite great effort.

Q: Which area in research in bilingualism in Singapore do you think merit further attention?

I think it is very important to emphasize the parents’ role in fostering their children as a bilingual. Perhaps Singaporeans have a pragmatic attitude in which they believe that English is the dominant language in many settings in Singapore so they encourage their kids to learn that language as well as possible. I think parents sometimes ignore the benefits of being a balanced bilingual. For example, based on my own studies, I found some associations between being a bilingual and having better social emotional well-being. The latter is fundamental to children’s mental health.

As such, it is important for parents to help their young children learn languages at home using different approaches. For example, we can use storybooks to engage our kids. We can ask them some very challenging questions to encourage back-and-forth conversations. We can also listen to a song together or if the parents don’t have enough confidence in their own mother tongue or English language, they can borrow electronic devices to use available applications to give their children enough authentic inputs to promote the learning motivation. I believe some little change in the home in the early years will make the whole language proficiency difference in the later years.

sun he