Multilingual Memories: Growing up in multilingual Singapore

“Aunty, lo hor! Aunty, lo hor!”, I yelled as I ran across the HDB corridor to my neighbour’s door. I banged on the door as I repeated the message hoping that she heard me soon enough to take in her almost crisp-dry laundry hanging out on the galah. Earlier in the day, I had started it with “B, A, ba, C, A, ca, baca. S, A, sa, Y, A, ya, saya…” in my Malay as a Second Language (presently referred to as Mother Tongue) class. Growing up, there was a plethora of languages—my mother and the neighbour, who always depended on us to keep her laundry dry, chatting away in Hokkien, the wonderful next-door aunty married to the Eurasian man of Dutch ancestry coming over every tea-time without fail to have a chat with my mother in Malay, Teochew and Hokkien, and speaking to us children in English, the immediate neighbour on the left who only spoke Hailam and thus, by default my mother’s conversations were in ‘broken’ Hailam with her, and my paternal grandmother complaining in Tamil to my mother that her children are constantly speaking in English and not Tamil—in the air.

As a child, I had clear signs of what language to use with whom in the household – English with my father, who had made the conscious choice of using English with the children for pragmatic reasons, Tamil and English with my mother who knew better then to speak to us children in Hokkien lest she upsets her mother-in-law who was already unhappy with the increasing usage of English in the household, Tamil with my grandmother, and English, the natural choice, with my siblings.

As a parent, I now have made a conscious choice of what languages I use with my children: English mainly, while their father uses Tamil. Of course, my children also hear Malay, which is our secret coded language when my hubby and I don’t want them to know something. How different was the language environment when you were growing up compared to your children’s?

Shamala recently joined our team as a Research Fellow. She graduated with a PhD in Psychology from the University of Reading in 2016, where she worked on bilingualism and how it affects language processing and cognition. Shamala has since worked at many different places, including NTU, NIE, JCUS, and SUSS. She’s currently working on the Language Mixes project.

Click here for more multilingual memories!

Last month, BLIP Lab has launched an exciting new project called Talk Together! Click here to find out more about how you can join us in investigating how Singaporean children’s language development may change with us spending extended time with them under these post-Circuit Breaker circumstances.

Multilingual Memories: Immersion as the best way to learn

People go on exchange for a variety of reasons; for independence, travelling, to learn under a different country’s education system. For me, one of the biggest motivating factors was to hone my language skills. 

I had only just started learning French in university for two semesters, but I loved studying it and knew that I could not miss the opportunity to immerse myself in a naturalistic environment where the language would be spoken by native speakers all the time. 

The most unexpected way I experienced the effectiveness of this language learning method was when I took on a babysitting/tutoring job with a French family. I looked after two charming boys and two precious girls aged 3-10 and taught them English weekly. There was one major complication though: the children spoke close to no English! 

Being forced to use only French in order to be understood was a challenge that pushed the limits of my language skills. I had to quickly become familiar with the vocabulary for the children’s daily activities, especially in giving commands to keep them safe! We held surprisingly long conversations together in spite of my halting attempts, the children teaching me the words I didn’t know in French while I shared the English word in return. 


This piece was written by our #SGUnited intern, Mebelle. Mebelle is a fourth-year Linguistics major.

Photo by Jess Vide from Pexels

Multilingual Memories: Learning by exposure

Growing up, I was exposed to English, Mandarin and a few Chinese dialects. According to my mother, when I was about 2 years old, she told my grandmother in Hainanese that she was leaving the house and to their surprise, I brought my shoes to the door and assumed that I would be leaving too! They were amazed that I could understand Hainanese despite not being deliberately taught it.  

Till today, I can still understand the Hainanese conversations my mother has with my grandparents and relatives, although I cannot speak it. I guess you can call it receptive multilingualism, which ia term I had learnt recently! Similarly, as my parents also speak Hokkien, I have picked up some Hokkien phrases here and there and am able to understand most of their Hokkien conversations as well.   

Something amusing I remember too, about my childhood was memorizing (without understanding) and singing along to theme songs of Hong Kong and Korean dramas I would watch with my family. One particular theme song I remember singing to was the Korean drama 大长今(Dae Jang Geum). You can give it a listen if you have not already! Fun fact is that it is actually written in Old Korean, the first documented stage of the Korean language. I think it amuses me how I was able to memorize these songs in a foreign language effortlessly as a child, which is something I find harder to do at this age. 

I have always found languages and the process of acquiring one to be pretty interestingBefore you acquire that particular language, the written and spoken form does not seem to make sense. But once you begin the process of acquiring one, be it reading or speaking, it feels like you have unlocked a secret code or opened a door in your brain and somehow what you read and hear now seem to make so much sense! Fascinating, isn’t it?  


This piece was written by Jairia Lim, our #SGUnited Intern. Jairia is a fourth-year Linguistics student.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Multilingual Memories: Language-learning as an interest

For the most part of my life, language-learning has been more rooted in as an academic obligation rather than borne out of personal passion and interest. While the studying of mother tongue languages have been implemented in the local education system to strengthen our connections to our ancestral origins and deepen understanding of our cultures so that we may embrace them – academic pressure may create a counter effect and cause students to dislike learning their mother tongues

Personallyback when I was younger, I did not see much value or purpose in learning Chinese given that my first language is English  my main medium of communication with friends and family. Additionally, I felt like Chinese was difficult to learn, which made me dread Chinese class all the time. I am sure that many others can relate to this. Till this day, I still remember my classmates and I dragging our feet to Chinese class and complaining about why we had to learn Chinese! In fact, I was really looking forward to never having to speak or write Chinese again since I was to be exempted from taking Chinese as a subject in Junior College. 

When I entered university, we were given the opportunity to take foreign language courses as our elective modules and it was then that I truly discovered the joy of learning a new language. Throughout my three years in university, I have taken Spanish, Thai and Korean as language electives and each module was a unique experience where I got to explore the different intricacies of each language. Isn’t it a profound and satisfying experience to see words that seem like meaningless symbols at the start suddenly make sense to you and become associated with various meanings and ideas? Undoubtedly, it is also fascinating to see how certain languages have overlaps between each other, a reflection of how various cultures have influenced each other.  

Thinking back to those days, maybe I would have enjoyed Chinese class a little more if I had taken the time to appreciate the intricacies of the language, instead of viewing it as a mere academic obligation to be fulfilled in a paper chase.  

This piece was written by our #SGUnited intern, Hannah Lin. Hannah is a fourth-year psychology student.

Photo credit: Adrianna Calvo on Pexels

Multilingual Memories: Daily conversations with my grandparents

Photo: Annabel and Grandpa

Looking back on my childhood, I realized that I gained proficiency in English and Mandarin not through constant drilling and memorization of phrases and words from school worksheets. Instead, my parents provided me with constant exposure and opportunities for interaction with the other caregivers which created for me a rich language environment.  

I was very fortunate to have my grandparents around me when I was growing up, and it was not till later when I realized they had played an important role in how I acquired English and Mandarin Chinese.  

While both of my parents were busy working, it was my paternal grandfather, otherwise known as 爷爷 (ye ye), who would pick me up from kindergarten and primary school daily, and we would take the bus home together. Looking at the buildings and scenery on the way home, we would naturally converse in Mandarin as I told him about my day. When I reached home, it would be my paternal grandmother, whom I call嫲嫲 (ma ma)who would help me with my English homework and spelling, making sure that I would score well in my spelling test the next day. She had been educated in English. During the weekends, I would go over to Tiong Bahru and spend the evenings with my maternal grandmother whom I remember fondly as麻嫲 (ma ma), as we would converse in Mandarin while watching her favourite Taiwanese dramas such as  and 夜市人生 together   

It was through daily interactions with my grandparents that I managed to become proficient in both languages at a young age, and I am very grateful to have them around. Having two grandparents who speak Mandarin and a grandmother who speaks English has enabled me to learn both languages simultaneously as I constantly had to switch between languages when conversing with them.  Although I now take the bus home from school on my own, no longer need help in with my homework and have switched to watching Netflix and Youtube videos – sometimes, I find myself reminiscing about those days. They will forever remain as simple but beautiful memories 

To me, the best way to learn a language is through experiencing it in your daily lives, with your family and loved ones.  

This piece was written by our #SGUnited Intern, Annabel Loh. Annabel is a fourth-year Chinese major.

Does the brain read Chinese the same way it reads English?

We know that our brain is capable of many things, including the ability to learn languages. This includes reading, writing, speaking, you name it—but does it do the same for all languages, like reading Chinese characters that look so different from English? In “Does the brain read Chinese or Spanish the same way it reads English?” which was published in Frontiers for Young Minds, the writer gave an interesting summary of how written languages work, and how our brains decode these symbols as we read.

Most (if not all) spoken languages in the world are represented by writing systems that use symbols. These symbols are called orthographies. Orthographies can be alphabetic (such as English and Spanish), or non-alphabetic (such as Chinese and Japanese Kanji). In alphabetic orthographies, each symbol represents one phoneme—an individual sound—such as the /b/ sound in “book”. In non-alphabetic orthographies, each character represents more than a phoneme—it might symbolize a syllable, such as “” (péng) in the word “朋友” (péngyǒu).

Alphabetic orthographies can also differ from each other according to how well the graphemes (symbols or letters) and phonemes (the sounds) match up. When every letter almost always has only one sound, then we say that the orthography is consistent, or “shallow”. When letters can represent different sounds, then that orthography is considered inconsistent, or “deep”. Spanish is a shallow orthography because its letters are always pronounced the same way, while English is a deep orthography because some of its letters can have many pronunciations, such as the two different /c/ sounds in “circus”.

On the other hand, non-alphabetic orthographies can represent either a syllable or a one-syllable unit of meaning with each symbol (i.e. a morpheme). In “朋友” (péngyǒu), the character “” (péng) doesn’t have a meaning on its own! It’s just a syllable that goes with “” (yǒu) to make a word that means “friend”. Another example is “的士” (deshì) which means taxi. The character “” (de) on its own is a possessive pronoun as in “belongs to”, and “” (shì) means “soldier”!

Is learning to read harder in some orthographies than others?

Reading requires us to match letters or symbols to the sounds they represent. This is a skill called phonological decoding. There is  overwhelming support  from research that shows learning to read is easier in consistent orthographies than in inconsistent orthographies. English readers take longer to learn to read than readers in almost all other alphabetic orthographies, and Chinese readers take even longer.

For children with dyslexia, this difficulty may depend on the language they’re trying to read in. Consistent orthographies like Spanish do not really affect their phonological decoding skills, which means that they can read words correctly, although they still tend to take more time than their peers who do not have dyslexia.

Inconsistent orthographies such as English tend to be harder even among peers who do not have dyslexia—this makes it even harder for children who have problems with phonological decoding, and mistakes in reading are more apparent. For a non-alphabetic language like Chinese, children with dyslexia also have difficulties reading, but more than having problems with phonological decoding, they may have trouble understanding how the character represents the meaning of a word. This skill is called morphological awareness, and it’s important for reading, too!

At BLIP Lab, we have a lot of fun activities that everyone can be a part of. Our Baby Talk-A-Thon study looks at how Singapore’s unique language landscape may affect language development in young children. In Red-Dot Baby-Talk, we ask people how familiar they are with our colourful Singlish words. More information about our studies can be found here!


Here’s a link to the original article:

Conrad, N. (2016.) Does the Brain Read Chinese or Spanish the Same Way It Reads English? Front. Young Minds, 4(26). doi: 10.3389/frym.2016.00026

Happy National Day!

National Day falls on 9 August in Singapore and it is widely celebrated by all. National Day celebrations typically include the National Day Parade and displays of fireworks across Singapore. This year, however, Singaporeans are celebrating it slightly differently.

Together, A Stronger Singapore

Due to COVID-19, we’ve had to adjust to a new normal to curb the spread of the virus. This impacts the way we’ve had to go about in our daily lives. Despite these new challenges, Singaporeans have been actively working together to get through this crisis.

Here at BLIP Lab, we’ve been taking strict measures for those who are working onsite, and we’ve also been running some exciting new studies that families can participate from their homes! During and post-circuit breaker, most of us have been spending more time at home with our families. This extended time may increase the amount of talk or interaction we have with our little ones. Some studies have found that more talk time helps build young children’s language development.

That’s why, in our Talk Together study, we want to investigate how children’s language development may change with parents spending extended time with them under these post-Circuit Breaker circumstances in Singapore. If you have a child between 8-36 months old and are interested to join us in our Talk Together study, please fill out the form here:

In Singapore, some of babies’ first words are special red-dot words that are part of what makes baby-talk in this part of the world special! However, not much is known about when little kids learn these words, and how they contribute to general language skills. We’ve created special game to find out when you learned these words and what you know about them! Click here to play our Red Dot Baby Talk Game:

Thank you for supporting us in our exciting journey to discover how our unique language landscape plays a part in our children’s language development. Stay safe everyone, and Happy National Day!

Conversations with my nenek who doesn’t speak English

My paternal nenek (grandmother in Malay) migrated to Singapore with my moyang (great-grandparents) in the early 1950s and settled into a kampong somewhere in the east of Singapore. Like many of our ancestors who migrated to Singapore over a century ago, my nenek (and many of her peers in the Pioneer Generation) do not speak English. My nenek never went to school and therefore never learnt English (a language that was introduced to Singapore by the British). And because she never learnt it in school, she couldn’t get a more atas job, so she never needed to learn English.

“But I know how to speak English,” my nenek cheekily tells us in Malay every time we converse in English in front of her. “Yes, no, alright.”

Thankfully, my cousins and I are well versed in conversational Malay which means that family gatherings are lively because my nenek loves to crack jokes—and they wouldn’t be funny if none of us could understand them. She likes to tell stories of her selling Nasi Lemak by the roadside, where my aunts would help her cook the rice and dishes, and my dad, who is the only son, would be milking coconuts at the back. When my grandmother tells us these kinds of stories, it makes us see our parents in a different light—as someone’s son or daughter instead of a parent or an elder. I like how it brings us all closer even if it’s just for a day.

In 2018, MOE launched a series of videos to promote the use of Mother Tongue languages. One of the videos tells us a heartwarming story about a primary school girl who overcame the language barrier between her and her grandfather: Click here to watch the video.

In recent years, research on the cognitive benefits of learning multiple languages has grown. Bilinguals and multilinguals may possess cognitive advantages in areas of decision making, multitasking, and higher order thinking. Beyond benefits to the brain, being able to speak more than one language can also help our day-to-day socialization! 

This picture was taken in 2011 during Hari Raya. I love how family gatherings bring generations of people together. Here, I’m sitting with my maternal grandmother who’s Javanese, and my cousin’s daughter who’s currently residing in Australia. Like my nenek, my nyai (that’s grandmother in Javanese!) couldn’t speak English very well. She took care of me while I was young, so I learned some cool Javanese words as I was growing up.

Here at BLIP Lab, we investigate how Singapore’s unique and colourful language landscape interacts with the way language skills develop in young children. Currently, our Work-From-Home arrangements mean that many of us are spending more time at home with our child. We want to know if this change has any influence your child’s language development. Click here to find out more!

Relooking at the critical age for second language learning

You’ve probably heard that children learn a second language more easily than adults before they reach a certain age. This particular age range is often referred to as the critical period of language acquisition and typically for second language learning, the age cut-off is around the onset of puberty. After this period, learning a second language is said to be harder. There are various reasons as to why younger children have advantages over adults for second language learning including, brain plasticity; a lack of interference from a well-learnt first language; and a stronger desire to speak the same language as their peers. However, a recent study involving more than 680, 000 participants suggests that the critical period may be up to 17-18 years of age. 

A recent study…

In 2018, Hartshorne, Tenenbaum, and Pinker conducted a large-scale online study with English speakers. They launched an online quiz called “Games with Words” where participants had to guess if the English sentences presented were grammatically correct. 

They wanted to find out the relationship between language proficiency and language ability. Participants were asked their age and how long they had been learning English, what setting did the learning take place in, and if they had they moved to an English-speaking country. Their study attracted over 680,000 people all over the world, and their responses were analysed based on whether they were:

  • Monolinguals who grew up speaking in English only
  • Immersion learners who either learned English simultaneously with another language since they were really young, or learned it later at an English-dominant setting
  • Non-immersion learners who learnt English but spent most of their life after learning, in a non-English speaking country

What did they find?

People do have an advantage for grammar learning when they start early, but people are still good at learning grammar until they reach 17 years old—that’s ten years older than what the typical critical window suggests! Adult learners can still be proficient but not flawlessly fluent, say the researchers. But why does the critical window stop at age 17-18? The researchers think that the causes may be both biological and social. Beyond 17 years of age, most people move away from home, or start college or work, and may not have time to practice or learn a second language. Their results suggest that language immersion helps learners learn better than formal classroom teaching.  Lead researcher, Joshua Hartshorne commented, “People who had English classes but had never been to an English-speaking country maxed out (in terms of grammar scores in the quiz) at a much lower level than someone who has had a few years of immersion.”

Language immersion helps learners learn better than formal classroom teaching.

So what does this all mean?

Starting early may still be important in learning languages, but so is getting more exposure and practice earlier on. Parents can provide an immersive second language learning environment by engaging their children in casual conversations, books, movies, songs, YouTube videos etc. Language learning is dynamic and should not be limited to the classroom.

Grandparents, neighbours, relatives, teachers, and friends can all be engaged to create this immersive language learning environment!

For example, a trip to the playground with Ah Gong and Ah Ma can involve learning new Mandarin words to describe things in the neighbourhood. Weekend at Nenek’s house may be a great opportunity for your child to learn how to cook her special lodeh along with all the names of all the ingredients in Malay. Doing grocery shopping with Patti will give your child a chance to learn food terms in Tamil. 

Encouraging the use of languages inside the home (e.g. with family) or outside (e.g. with friends) also helps with language learning.

This post was written by our lab member Shaza, and edited by Fei Ting. Shaza watches a lot of anime in hopes of improving her Japanese, while Fei Ting’s TV dramas helped her to learn Korean. What are the other different ways you do to improve your language skills?




Hartshorne, J. K., Tenenbaum, J. B., & Pinker, S. (2018). A critical period for second language acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers. Cognition, 177, 263-277.

BOLD: Window for second language learning may remain open for longer

Multilingual Memories: Favourite bedtime stories

My love for reading started out when I was very young and was further encouraged by my parents who shared a love for reading too! When I was little, I would pick out my favourite bedtime story to read every night, tucking the book under one arm and dragging my dad or my mum’s hand with my other arm to the reading corner. At first I always wanted to read only the English books – Aesop Fables, Peter and Jane series, anything Enid Blyton. I truly enjoyed escaping to another world in these stories fascinated by usage of sound words, descriptive words etc that make way for vivid imaginations.

But as a Tamil teacher, my mum started to get worried that I was not enjoying the Tamil language as much. She felt I needed to be well versed in my mother tongue too. To help me to enjoy reading in Tamil as much as I did in English, she would compile newspaper clippings, share storybooks filled with illustrations and colour, bring us to watch Tamil movies and stick up reading charts. This all helped to make sure my growing love for reading was balanced between my languages.

Also, by making reading fun and supporting my love for reading in both languages, I realize my parents have helped me to practise my bilingual language skills from a young age. Even to this day, I’m well-versed in both English and Tamil, and still enjoy reading stories in all my languages! What is the most fun thing you do in each of your languages?

This post was written by our Research Associate, Eshwaaree, who’s the only Tamil speaker in our team! She graduated with Master of Education in Developmental Psychology last year and is currently working on our language mixes project.

Want to know more about the fun things we’re working on?

Click here to read more of our Multilingual Memories!