Schools Putting First Languages First

While English is the day-to-day spoken language in Singapore’s international classrooms, there are many students speaking it as a second language. A child's first language plays an important role in language development, so how are schools maintaining and developing these mother-tongue language and literacy skills?
Schools Putting First Languages First
By Carli Allan
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Singapore’s international schools are filled with expat children learning in a language other than their mother tongue. It is this rich multicultural environment that prepares students so well to compete in a global world. But, while learning a second language gives children a huge advantage in becoming fully bilingual later on, it's important for learners to have a solid grasp of their native language too.

In response to the increasing multilingualism present in campuses, many international schools offer a mother tongue programme. While bilingual programmes will focus on learning a new language, these mother tongue programmes immerse students in the language and culture of their home country, and they focus on the first language a child learns at home.

There are many advantages of studying your mother tongue language. It helps to develop your child’s personal, social and cultural identity, as well as their critical thinking and literacy skills. It will help your child to settle if you decide to move back to your home country. It also prepares them to study the IB Bilingual Diploma, which is awarded to college students who demonstrate language proficiency in two different languages.

There are many schools and external providers offering after-school mother tongue programmes, and weekend classes are available at various centres, but some international schools offer lessons as part of their curriculum. WhichSchoolAdvisor has selected five international schools in Singapore with a mother tongue programme that is taught during and after the school day.

Tanglin Trust School

Languages: French, Mandarin and Spanish
Age range: Years 1-13
Method of delivery: Taught within the curriculum
Cost: Yes, fee varies

Tanglin Trust School runs a two-tiered mother-tongue programme for students in its senior school. Lessons in French, Mandarin and Spanish are incorporated into the curriculum, dependent on numbers; there is a charge for these tutored-lessons. As well as learning the language, students take part in activities include speaking competitions, cooking classes, French breakfasts, film evenings, Spanish tapas, cultural carousels, trips to China and homestays in France and Spain.

Students in the infant and junior schools, can attend mother tongue classes in French, Mandarin, Japanese and Hindi.

The school also offers weekly after-school or lunchtime classes for Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Arabic, which are taught by volunteer parents or paid tutors.

The school says:

"As an international school, we believe that it is essential to provide assistance to and raise the profile of those students who speak a non-English language at home on a regular basis. We recognise that the need to keep in touch with one's cultural roots is especially important in an expatriate environment."

Overseas Family School

Languages: 14 Mother Tongue languages (Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Norwegian, Russian, Spanish and Swedish)
Age range: Kindergarten to Middle School
Method of delivery: Taught within the curriculum
Teachers: Native speakers of the language, with teacher training and degree earned in the home country, and also fluent in English.
Cost: No additional fee

Overseas Family School offers perhaps Singapore’s largest mother tongue programmes, with a choice of 14 Mother Tongue languages (Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Norwegian, Russian, Spanish and Swedish).

Students can have Mother Tongue classes four times a week during school hours as part of the main curriculum, from Kindergarten through to Middle School; this option is taken instead of foreign language classes. The mother tongue classes focus on reading, writing, listening, speaking and culture, and are assessed as any other subject in the curriculum would be.

The school says:

“The OFS Mother Tongue programme allows students to immerse themselves thoroughly in the language and culture of their home country, maintaining native-level language proficiency for seamless reintegration. In addition to reading, writing, listening and speaking skills, students study the literature and celebrate the unique customs of their home countries to keep in touch with their roots. It is not unusual for students to celebrate holidays such as Rosh Hashanah, Santa Lucia, Xin Nian and Dia de Muertos.”

St. Joseph’s Institute International

Languages: Japanese, Korean, French, Thai, Vietnamese, German and Russian
Age range: High School, Grades 7-11
Method of delivery: Taught within the curriculum
Cost: The cost depends on how many students there are in the class, and ranges from $1,010 to $3,635 per semester

SJI International runs a parent-funded Home Language Programme for Japanese, Korean, French, Thai, Vietnamese, German and Russian. Students study their home language to a high proficiency and through the IB Diploma, with the goal of achieving an IB bilingual diploma.

Two home language classes are taught face-to-face per week during the school day by native-speaking teachers; there is a third period of self-study in the library. Students are withdrawn from their current timetabled additional language lessons once they join the Home Language Programme.

The school says:

“Our philosophy is to maximise the benefits of both ‘teacher-centred’ and ‘student-centred’ learning. In the former, we design language lessons and activities that provide for systematic learning so as to prepare students for practical language use and an appreciation of literature and cultures.
“In the student-centred approach, students are engaged through a wide range of activities in the classroom such as role-play, presentation, debate, games and singing. To support both approaches, we use a wide variety of teaching and learning resources such as textbooks, documentaries, movies, song lyrics, online video clips, mobile apps, literature texts, newspapers, and magazines.”


Languages: German, Dutch and Danish
Age range: Grades 1-12
Method of delivery: Taught within the curriculum (Danish); after-school lessons (Dutch, Grades 1-5 only)
Cost: Dutch Mother Tongue Programme ($2,500 per year), Danish Mother Tongue Programme (no fee)

GESS offers mother tongue Dutch and Danish programmes alongside its English-taught International Baccalaureate stream, and it gives all students the opportunity to study for the IB Bilingual Diploma. This will appeal to any families planning to return to the Netherlands or Denmark or enrol in a university there.

In the Danish programme, Grades 1-5 attend five lessons per week in place of German as a foreign language. In Grades 6-12 there are up to five lessons per week, which teach Dutch language and literature in line with the IB MYP and IBDP.

In the Dutch programme, Grades 1-5 attend three lessons per week after school. Students must $2,500 per year to attend these classes, which focus on reading, writing, and spoken language skills in line with the Primary Years Programme (PYP). In Grades 6-12, there are four lessons per week within the regular school day; these teach Dutch language and literature in line with the IB MYP and IBDP, as well as the social, cultural, historical and political aspects of Netherlands and Belgium.

Australian International School (AIS)

Languages: French, Mandarin and Spanish
Age range: Prep to Year 12
Method of delivery: Taught within the curriculum
Cost: Yes, fee varies; no additional fees for Korean and Mandarin programme in secondary school

The all-through Australian International School (AIS) offers an extensive Mother Tongue Programme in all languages from Prep to Year 12.

Elementary students take 10 classes per term, once a week, after school hours; all languages are offered and parents are charged a fee. In secondary, Korean and Mandarin are included in the students' tuition fees; lessons are incorporated into the curriculum. For all other languages, students take 18 classes each term, twice a week, after school hours.

ISS International School

Languages: Chinese, Korean and Japanese
Age range: Grades 6 to 12
Method of delivery: Taught within the curriculum
Cost: No

At ISS International School, mother tongue language programmes in Chinese, Korean and Japanese are taught within the curriculum from Grades 6 to 12. Students are then prepared to take the IB Bilingual Diploma when they enter the IB Diploma Programme in Grades 11 and 12.

Chatsworth International School

Languages: All languages
Age range: Years 7 to 11
Method of delivery: Taught within the curriculum
Cost: Yes, fee varies

Students at Chatsworth International School can develop their speaking, listening, reading and writing skills in the school’s IB Middle Years Programme Language and Literature Mother Tongue. Offered from Years 7 to 11, students are timetabled to meet twice per week with Chatsworth’s Mother Tongue Coordinator on campus and a minimum of once per week on or off campus. Lessons are taught by external mother tongue tutors, and are paid for by the parents.

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