Assoc Prof Leher Singh: Not all baby talk

07 January 2019 | Research - Innovators

Assoc Prof Singh (centre) with Rehan (left) and Milan

A love for literature and reading fuelled NUS Psychology Associate Professor Leher Singh’s scientific interest in language, whose research focuses on language development in very young children.

As a child, Assoc Prof Singh was shy, reticent yet curious and “quite the daydreamer”, she quipped. She had a voracious appetite for fiction which developed into a love for literature. During her undergraduate studies at Bryn Mawr College in the US, she took a course in the psychology of language. “I realised during that course that we have quite a limited understanding of how human language develops in children and it remains an unsolved mystery with more questions than answers,” she said. A passion to gain a deeper understanding in this area led Assoc Prof Singh to enter the field.

After completing her PhD in Cognitive Science at Brown University, US, Assoc Prof Singh did not take the typical route of gaining academic experience through a postdoctoral fellowship before securing a faculty position. Instead, she jumped straight into the position of Assistant Professor at Boston University. “It was quite an undertaking to set up a new lab, secure federal grants, publish papers, begin teaching for the first time and prepare for tenure in a span of five years. I was very focused and structured my life to prepare for tenure, which involved many late nights and weekends spent in cafes writing grant proposals and manuscripts,” she reminisced. In addition to these efforts, she benefited from a supportive work environment and department chair. All of these factors helped her to secure tenure.

Assoc Prof Singh conducts research on language development in the first two years of a child’s life, as well as factors that help children to acquire their first language. “This is surprisingly the most critical phase of language development, even though infants at this stage provide the least evidence of knowing language,” she shared enthusiastically. For example, at the age of 18 months, when most toddlers know only a handful of words, those who have received high quality language input are already better at understanding words and sentences than those who have had lower quality input. These toddlers go on to fare better in primary school and perhaps even beyond. New technologies such as eye-tracking have allowed researchers to track babies’ knowledge about their language long before they can vocalise this knowledge, she added. 

Another area of Assoc Prof Singh’s research is the influence of learning two languages on the development of a child’s mind. Her research team found that babies who have been exposed to two languages exhibit faster information processing. “This advantage was observed at six months of age, suggesting that exposure to two languages shapes fundamental aspects of early memory development,” she explained. Bilingual babies also demonstrated greater sensitivity to foreign languages, suggesting that they might have an advantage over monolingual toddlers in learning new foreign sounds.

I am always mindful of the fact that much research is publicly funded and that this places on me the onus to conduct research that would also benefit the public. Going forward, I plan to pursue dual lines of research in basic and applied research to contribute meaningfully to society, where basic findings in language development can inform educational and parenting practices.

Assoc Prof Singh is currently investigating the effects of bilingualism on social, cognitive and language development. In a second stream of research, she will also focus on identifying risks for language development in children from disadvantaged families. “I am interested in conducting research across different socioeconomic strata in Singapore to determine language gaps and designing interventions to counteract these risks so that all children can begin their academic journey on an equal footing,” she said.

Assoc Prof Singh stressed that she would like her work to have both scholarly and societal impact. “I am always mindful of the fact that much research is publicly funded and that this places on me the onus to conduct research that would also benefit the public. Going forward, I plan to pursue dual lines of research in basic and applied research to contribute meaningfully to society, where basic findings in language development can inform educational and parenting practices,” she explained.

Originally from India, Assoc Prof Singh conceded that her community can exert a rather strong pressure on women to get married and start a family instead of carving out a career. Fortunately for Assoc Prof Singh, her family did not subscribe to such beliefs. “I was raised in a family where I was encouraged as a female to pursue an independent career and I never had to justify career choices to my parents or other members of my family,” she said.

To someone who is starting out in her field, Assoc Prof Singh would like to say, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint” and advises young academics to reflect upon how they want to make their mark. “I would encourage those starting out to gradually build a programmatic and incremental research direction that is focused on answering a significant set of questions, sort of like sketching a large puzzle and then trying to find pieces that will fit together to complete the puzzle,” she elaborated. This approach is preferable, she feels, to chasing opportunities for publication or contributing marginally to several different fields.

Assoc Prof Singh is married to Professor Rob Martinus van Dam, Vice Dean (Academic Affairs) at NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health and they have two sons, Milan and Rehan, aged 6 and 9 years old respectively. “My favourite thing to do is to spend time with my children. I love the simple, everyday moments: reading together, building Lego blocks and spending time in the park. It is fascinating to watch them develop into their own person with ambitions, goals and ideals,” she said.

She is also an avid runner and tennis player, as well as an enthusiastic cook who loves to experiment with new recipes and with fusion cuisine. Some of her exciting creations include a green curry quinoa bowl, apple-marzipan tarte and pesto chicken kebabs, the last of which is Rehan’s favourite.