English proficiency unaffected by early exposure to Hokkien

According to a study led by Assoc Prof Leher Singh from NUS Psychology, children who were brought up in an environment where Hokkien is used as the primary language did not limit their English proficiency in later years

People who learned Hokkien when they were young can master English as well as those who were exposed to English predominantly, according to a new study by a team of psychologists from NUS. 

The research, led by NUS Psychology Associate Professor Leher Singh, also found that individuals who were brought up by Hokkien-speaking grandparents were able to re-learn the Chinese dialect easily despite having forgotten it in their later years. On the other hand, individuals who were not exposed to Hokkien when they were young faced difficulty in acquiring the dialect.

“Parents may wonder whether using a dialect as the main language when bringing up their children will affect the child’s eventual mastery of English. Our results indicate that while the first language a child receives leaves a very strong imprint in memory even after discontinuation, that early exposure does not affect the child’s subsequent acquisition of English. These findings are assuring for parents who are concerned that exposing their babies to dialects may delay or impede their development in learning English,” explained Assoc Prof Singh.

The findings of the study were first published online in Journal of Experimental Child Psychology on 16 May 2019.

Effects of first language exposure

Assoc Prof Singh shared, “Children are highly sensitive to the quantity and quality of language input they receive in the first three years. To find out whether learning a different language in the child’s early years affects the acquisition of English over the longer term, we need to look at caregivers who spoke a heritage language that was not spoken in the larger community. As Hokkien-speaking households make up about half of the Chinese households in Singapore, it is an ideal dialect for us to examine.”

The NUS study, which was conducted from January 2018 to May 2018 involved 34 Chinese participants between 19 to 22 years old. Among them, half were in the care of a Hokkien-speaking grandparent from birth and could speak Hokkien when they were young but no longer recall the dialect during their adulthood. The remaining participants were raised by a caregiver who spoke to them in English, so they had no exposure to Hokkien in their early years.

The participants were first tested on their English proficiency. They went through four tasks to measure different tiers of the language code, in areas of phonological, semantic, and grammatical knowledge, and both groups showed similar levels of proficiency.

The research team next compared the participants’ ability to acquire Hokkien tonal phonology and vocabulary, which differs from the Mandarin tone system. As earlier studies showed that individuals with early linguistic exposure that has been discontinued may retain traces of the language, the research team measured the participants’ sensitivity to unique properties of Hokkien phonology and tone discrimination. After going through tasks to familiarise themselves with Hokkien tones and vocabulary, those who had Hokkien caregivers during their childhood were able to apply the rules of the dialect to acquire new words, and they showed improvement in learning the language. On the other hand, when those who grew up in an English-speaking environment demonstrated were presented with new syllables, they were unable to apply the rules of the language to learn new words, and did not show any improvement in acquiring the language.

“Results of our study showed that bringing up children using Hokkien as the main language medium is not detrimental to their subsequent English proficiency. In fact, there may be savings in re-learning the dialect as vestiges of the early-acquired language may remain in memory,” explained Assoc Prof Singh.

More studies on how infants learn languages

To enrich the knowledge in this important area, Assoc Prof Singh and her research team are looking at how children process and acquire languages. They are conducting studies to look at how monolingual and bilingual babies track the sounds of their language, the moment they begin to show understanding of words, and how bilingualism affects a child’s language development.