Child characteristics, family factors, and preschool factors are all found to affect the rate of bilingual children's vocabulary development in heritage language (HL). However, what remains unknown is the relative importance of these three sets of factors in HL vocabulary growth. The current study explored the complex issue with 457 Singaporean preschool children who are speaking either Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil as their HL. A series of internal factors (e.g., non-verbal intelligence) and external factors (e.g., maternal educational level) were used to predict children's HL vocabulary growth over a year at preschool with linear mixed effects models.
The results demonstrated that external factors (i.e., family and preschool factors) are relatively more important than child characteristics in enhancing bilingual children's HL vocabulary growth. Specifically, children's language input quantity (i.e., home language dominance), input quality (e.g., number of books in HL), and HL input quantity at school (i.e., the time between two waves of tests at preschool) predict the participants’ HL vocabulary growth, with initial vocabulary controlled. The relative importance of external factors in bilingual children's HL vocabulary development is attributed to the general bilingual setting in Singapore, where HL is taken as a subject to learn at preschool and children have fairly limited exposure to HL in general. The limited amount of input might not suffice to trigger the full expression of internal resources. Our findings suggest the crucial roles that caregivers and preschools play in early HL education, and the necessity of more parental involvement in early HL learning in particular.