Pre-schoolers Speak Mixing of English and Mandarin Have Better Grasps of Languages

SINGAPORE: Parents and teachers tend to frown upon children speaking a mix of English and Mandarin, but a study done on pre-schoolers here has found that such a habit does not necessarily reflect a weaker command of either language.

On the contrary, the study — which saw the participation of 51 pre-schoolers aged between five-and-a-half and six-and-a-half years old — found that children switch between these languages because they have the linguistic capacity to do so. In fact, those who switch between English and Mandarin more frequently were found to have a better command of the latter language.

Assistant Professor Yow Wei Quin from the Faculty of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), who conducted the study, said many parents and teachers discouraged children from switching between these languages, which she called “code-switching”.

“Code-switching is a pretty common thing that Singaporeans do and there are people, parents and those whom I have worked with — teachers and pre-school principals — who say that code-switching, code-mixing seems pretty bad,” said Asst Prof Yow, who will present her findings at the Ministry of Education’s Mother Tongue Languages Symposium this Saturday.

However, upon noting that there was a dearth of research to prove that code-switching is bad, she set out to discover more, within the context of Singapore. Over the course of nine months, Asst Prof Yow and her research team studied the way the children spoke during free play, language lessons, meals and group project time at two pre-schools. These children shared similar family profiles, with parents whose average highest education was a university degree and who spoke more English than Mandarin at home.

To test their English receptive vocabulary, Asst Prof Yow and her team used the internationally-recognised Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, where children were required to identify the picture that depicts the word being read to them. To measure their competencies in both spontaneous English and Mandarin speech, they considered the number of unique word types used, the mean length and complexity, some aspects of grammar and complexity of their sentences.

The team found that the children “code-switched” 14 per cent of the time, but this did not affect their English language skills. Those who switched between English and Mandarin more frequently displayed better Mandarin vocabulary and expressed themselves better in the language.

The findings suggest that code-switching gives children the opportunity to speak Mandarin. “The children are not pressured to think that they must speak in a full Mandarin sentence. Whatever they know, they will just use (it),” she said.

Asst Prof Yow hopes that with the findings, parents would not discourage their children from code-switching. However, she said it is important that parents continue to use full sentences in one language. Acknowledging the limitations of her study, she said she was considering an expansion of her research to include a study into the impact of switching between other mother tongue languages and measuring language competencies through the analysis of syntax, for example.


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