SINGAPORE: Selected children and parents at the My First Skool centre at Jurong West, which officially opened on Wednesday (Oct 4), will be part of a new study on bilingual proficiency and social cognitive development in pre-schoolers.
The study by the Childhood Bilingualism Research Centre (CBRC) from the Chinese University of Hong Kong at the pre-school is funded by NTUC First Campus and expected to take place over four to five years, CBRC said.
NTUC First Campus said the research findings will be used to strengthen the school’s bilingual curriculum, and provide teachers and parents with the necessary information to help pre-schoolers gain bilingual competency.
Any improvements to the curriculum at the Jurong West pre-school will be rolled out across the other centres, it added.
According to CBRC, researchers will study the language and cognitive abilities of the children for two years before shaping further research plans.
CBRC centre director Virginia Yip, who will be heading the research along with co-director Stephen Matthew, told Channel NewsAsia that Singapore fits the research agenda as it is a "vibrant, multilingual society".
“Bilingualism and multilingualism are woven into the fabric of society here,” she said.
Professor Yip explained that the team would also look at how the quality and quantity of input will shape the bilingual development of children in the early years, which she said are the golden years of language acquisition.
This is the first time CBRC has conducted a wide-scale study on pre-schoolers. Previous studies focused on smaller groups of older children in the UK, Hong Kong and the US.
DEVELOPING A NICHE
The new study is in line with vision of My First Skool at Jurong West, which NTUC First Campus said is to become a centre of excellence for bilingualism and cultural intelligence.
According to NTUC First Campus, the centre is the largest pre-school in Western Singapore and can accommodate more than 300 children from two months to six years old. Since it opened in February this year, it has taken in 180 children, it added.
The classrooms feature interactive learning corners such as a Malay puppet theatre, a Chinese convenience stall and an Indian supermarket to help students learn more about these cultures.
There is even an "Aunty appreciation board" where students can leave notes of gratitude for the kitchen staff, a simple gesture which teaches respect.
The students are also exposed to other languages. For example, the children and teachers try to use different languages - Malay, Tamil, English or Mandarin - to greet each other every morning, NTUC First Campus mother tongue language officer Connie Lum said.
This helps them pick up simple phrases which will be helpful in the future, she added.
While only Mandarin is being offered at the centre for now, Dr Lum said there are pilot programmes in Malay and Tamil being carried out in 22 and two My First Skool centres respectively. The centres were chosen due to their high population of Malay and Indian students, NTUC First Campus said.
The Malay language programme started two years ago while the Tamil language one began early last year. My First Skool previously only offered these languages as enrichment classes, it added.
My First Skool deputy general manager Thian Ai Ling said the pre-school operator hopes to eventually offer Malay lessons at 50 per cent of their centres, and Tamil lessons at 20 per cent by 2022. However, she conceded that manpower and resource constraints make it challenging.
Dr Lum said these developments are part of the government’s move to promote bilingual acquisition at an early age.
“Whether you are Malay, Chinese or Indian, the pedagogy is the same,” Dr Lum said, adding that the school ensures that the same teaching aids are provided for those programmes.
She said she had also received positive feedback from parents, as some of them feel that they aren’t proficient enough to teach their children mother tongue languages at home.
“We’ve had very good feedback from the parents. Now they are able to start a dialogue with their grandparents,” Dr Lum said.
Mr Chan Chun Sing, the secretary-general of National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), said that a variety of teaching methods is needed as young children have different learning styles from older ones.
"We believe from our own pedagogical studies, that the earlier you start the children on the languages, the easier it is to pick it up. Also the foundation will be stronger and it will last them through their lifetime,” he added.