I assume our readers are mostly Singapore residents. So let's start with a quiz.

True or false?

  • Singapore Malays are the most bilingual (compared to Indians and Chinese)
  • Singapore Indians are the most monolingual (compared to Malays and Chinese)
  • Singapore Indians are the most trilingual (compared to Malays and Chinese)

As it turns out,

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All three are true. Take a look.

languages by ethnic group

The Malays in Singapore are the most bilingual in Singapore, with most of them speaking both English and Malay.

Surprisingly, Indians have the largest percentage of trilingual persons. This surprised me quite a bit. Could it be that more Indians speak English, Chinese, and Tamil? I dug deeper into the report by Singstat here.

Turns out I was wrong. Out of every hundred Indians, seven speak three languages, but only 2 of them speak English, Malay, and Tamil. The other five speak "Other Three or More Languages". Perhaps Tamil, English, and Hindi? I don't know.

In any case, there's strong research coming out these days which suggests that bilingual children have superior social skills compared to single language (monolingual) children.

bilingual children have superior social skills compared to single language (monolingual) children

According to a new study (link) published last year, children growing up in a multilingual environment tended to be better at communication and taking the perspectives of others.

In the experiment, they presented the children with a situation where they could see three cars but the other person could only see two of the three cars.

In this set up, the adult would say "I see a small car, can you move the small car for me?" The child actually sees three cars: small, medium, and large, and from the child's perspective could also see that the adult is unable to see the smallest car. Therefore, the child should reason that when the adult refers to the small car, he is referring not to the smallest car but to the medium sized car that he can see.

Not surprisingly, bilingual children performed better at this task compared to monolingual children. Communication not only requires that a person understand content, but also the context in which the communication takes place. For a child growing up in a bilingual environment, they frequently have the chance to practice considering the perspectives of other people: who is saying what to whom, what language was used, who understands which language, the time and context in which communication takes place.

Growing up in Singapore, almost everyone is bilingual, and this is a good thing. While there's a small percentage of speakers who only use English, the majority speak English and another language, also normally called their "mother tongue".

But there's more to the research. Further studies and experiments confirmed that students who are monolingual but exposed to other languages frequently performed just as well as bilinguals on similar tasks.

This suggests that we should encourage children to grow up in environments where people speak differently languages: be it grandparents speaking different dialects, or classmates from different races teaching each other a bit of their own mother tongue. This would help develop children's communication and social skills.

Cover image via Daniel