Month: February 2015

Of Language and Multilingualism

I have never used the word multilingual to describe myself. Perhaps nobody has asked me that question ‘Are you multilingual’? before, and the last time I ever filled a form requiring me to list down languages I master was nearly five years ago.

I can speak, write and read at least two languages fluently, that is Malay (my mother tongue) and English. I used to be able to speak Arabic –  but lost the skill over time, reduced to reading and writing only. I have attempted Mandarin, spending nearly fifty pounds sterling (or so, but it was a huge amount for a poor student like myself) for a course I attended only a few times back when I was in Manchester.

For the time being, I have no drive to acquire another language. I am just refining my Arabic whenever I am presented with the opportunity nowadays.

Nevertheless, having Isa makes me think hard on this multilingual thing.

What language I’d like Isa to master? We can all find numerous articles on the net advocating for multilingualism, and if I look around here in Malaysia, every parents I  know strive to make English a language for their children to master at an early age.

I have not made my mind up. Initially, we tried to adopt one-parent-one-language  method (with me speaking English fully with Isa, and my husband in Malay), but that didn’t work out. I do not know if teaching different languages at the same time; mixing them up in one sentence is good or bad, but I personally cringe at bad grammar in English sentences. I don’t fancy Malaysian English much, and hope my children won’t acquire that ‘dialect’. I fear that mixing them up now when talking to Isa will result in just that.

Another reason for me not to being too stress out about Isa and my other children (hopefully, God willing) learning English intensively is the fact that I love Malay language. I think it is incredibly beautiful and it is really a part of heritage which makes a Malay a Malay. Jati diri. The sad part is that, I notice that my formal, written Malay is getting worse by day – and the last thing I’d want my children to be are Malays who could not even speak proper Malay  (Okay, it is ironic that I am writing this in English, I know!). If that happens, it could potentially mean that they are good at no language at all.

I have a feeling that maybe I should start teaching Isa proper English once he begins formal schooling, when he starts learning from the basic grammar and moves on from that. After all, research has shown that despite the widely-popular notion that the golden age, or the critical period for learning for children is from 0-3 years old, the window is actually longer. Children do learn languages better than adults, but it is not that after that child is 3 years old, the window snaps shut. It seems to stay open at least until puberty and under some scenarios, for a lifetime. 

In ‘Einstein Never Used Flashcards‘ this one professor, Professor Huttenlocher tells us that second-language teaching and musical training are likely to be more effective if started early, during the period of high plasticity, which includes the early school years (ages 5 to 10 years).

So I guess, there is really no rush for Isa. His formal English lesson will start when he enters primary school, so that is when we will ideally begin ours at home.

And another reason that makes me feel that this way is justified and might work is because that is how I have learnt English.

How I Learnt English as a Second Language

My mother can read and understand English at the basic level being a teacher , and my father speaks none whatsoever. When I was able to read at the age of 5, I read in Malay. I only learnt English in formal classroom setting when I started Standard One of primary school. Given that my primary schooling was in rural area, there was not any conversation in English happened during those days.

The only thing that made a huge difference in the mastery of the language is, as I am convinced, the fact that when I was 10-11 years old, I was enrolled in an English tuition which stressed on mastering the English grammar. We had the class once or twice a week, and the teacher put us under very intensive grammar practice, in the exam format of multiple answer question.

Only after a few months I could see a major improvement in my English. My vocabulary expanded. I remember being so amazed with myself that after just a few months, a Disney English story book that I struggled to read (having to check the dictionary for every other word) previously was then read without much hassle. It grew from that, I believe, and assisted very much by my love of reading, and for dictionaries, which lasted well into my secondary schooling years. Those were thing that gave me, perhaps, the A1 in my English 1119 i.e. GCE O-Level.

When it comes to conversing in English, however,  I didn’t get much practice even during my secondary schooling years. There were days where speaking English was a compulsory upon us students, but we’d always find a way not to. Only when I was doing my International Baccalaureate diploma that I was forced to speak English. Except for the subject Malay A1, I was forced to communicate in English for all other subjects, which entailed making presentations in that language many times a day. At that point in time I knew my written English was not far behind other students, but my spoken English lagged.

I was coerced even more to convey my thoughts in English verbally in a more fluent way when I was sent to the UK to further my study. When I look at it, writing in a blog (which I started doing in 2007) helped me a lot to structure my thoughts and consequently able to articulate my thoughts better and clearer verbally – a skill that is proven to be very useful as I entered my working life.

That is how I get my English to be where it is now, imperfect as it is, along with a lot of reading and fascination with dictionaries. I’m not at all apologetic about it being mediocre, after all, it is my second language.

How Isa is now

As with all toddlers, Isa started with learning names of objects, and that was when my husband and I came to this junction: some Malay words are too complicated, compared to the English word for that particular object. We chose the easy way out – we use the English terms when they are easier for Isa to pronounce, but most often interchangeably with ones in Malay. In my mind, what was important at that point was for Isa to be able to communicate his needs. Note that his aunties in the crèche were encouraged by other parents explicitly to use English whenever possible,  so despite him not getting much of his English words from us, he gets them elsewhere; the familiarisation does happen simultaneously for both English and Arabic, another language we are keen to have our children master God willing. I noticed that reading story books helps a lot with Isa’s vocabulary, and since I found that there are not many good story books in Malay language for Isa’s age (by good I mean suitable for his age, with excellent, imaginative illustrations) I buy English books but make the effort to translate them into Malay whenever I am reading those books to Isa.

However, we noticed that after a while, Isa could understand both languages well, manifested by him often saying things like ‘Car untuk kereta’, i.e. ‘Car means kereta,’  and ‘cat samalah dengan kucing’ i.e. ‘cat is the same as kucing‘. Though this ‘direct translation’ and consciousness (perhaps) of the different languages the words are (babies have the ability to differentiate languages, by the way), are still limited to words and not sentences, I am totally in awe with human capacity to learn and pick up things.

For the time being, we focus on speaking in correct, though informal, sentences in Malay and being careful not to mix both languages up (rojak is truly ugly, if you ask me). Isa being much of a talker now as many have noticed, is very much assisted by the fact that he loves to repeat our sentences and always insists on having his words pronounced correctly as both of us parents did (I hope this won’t make him end up with OCD, or being an annoying perfectionist though). He is now able to construct more sophisticated sentences with the coming of everyday, incorporating useful conjunctions like ‘sambil’ (“Isa makan sambil main” i.e. Isa eats while playing) etc. Alhamdulillah.

So that’s really what our take on language-learning for my children for the time being. I maybe wrong in my approach. Maybe others are doing it better, but for the time being, looking at the immediate outcomes, I think we are going to stick to this for our second child.

Allah definitely knows better.

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Some foods for thoughts:

1. How English language is holding children back (How spelling keep kids from learning)

2. Is bilingualism really an advantage?

Notes from Al-Muhaddithat

I found this unpublished, unfinished short note on the book I read last year entitled al-Muhaddithat. I thought that rather then putting it in the trash, I might as well publish it for my benefit and record if not for others.

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Well, I am cheating a bit here. I chose the book ‘al-Muhaddithat’ to read in December 2013, and a heavy read as it is, I only finished in in January 2014. The down side of having a goal like the one I made is that you might be tempted to read books just to cross it from your reading list, which is totally defeating the purpose.

So I slowed down and tried to savour the book. It was indeed an interesting read, laden with amazing and inspiring facts.

Here’s what I have learned, roughly. I should have cross-checked these with the book, but I don’t have the book around at the moment – so this comes from top of my head:

  1. I am amazed by the kind of support the women received during those time to become an expert in the field. It is worth noting that women from the households of male scholars were ones who became scholars themselves – which means that those who understood Islam most were ones who supported and realized the need and importance of women to become scholars themselves. I guess the number one prerequisite is this: Family support.
  2. Unfortunately for me, this book – or maybe just how their history were recorded – would not allow for me to know these female scholars traits and attitude, or their specific practices in life, other than that they were pious, upright person.
  3. When I read to my husband some lines on how these scholars devoted themselves to a certain discipline of Islamic knowledge, my husband asked : ‘Did they ever get married? Did they have children?” . By the look of it, with the kind of commitment they made, marriage and family seems impossible. But who knows. They had slaves during those days – so it is perhaps a different social condition altogether.
  4. Many scholars started to study at a very young age. Very, very young. Again, family support, especially from the males. They brought the girls to the mosque and other places attending lessons.
  5. The female scholars taught. And they taught both males and females. Many of the students were great scholars. And they taught – I am truly envy this – in their homes and garden. As well as mosques.
  6. There are many anecdotes in the book, which inspires me. I hate the notions that some women have that you ought to find a good, religious, knowledgeable husband to learn from him. Not that finding good, religious and knowledgeable husbands is wrong, but why on earth would you rely on someone else to become knowledgeable? Why don’t you go and learn yourself? Many anecdotes shared in the book (and I at least have heard one myself from a shaykh), that show how the knowledgeable women taught their husbands on certain matters related to fiqh and all.

The Other Side of Motherhood

So the title of this blog is Motherhood Etc. It shows something about me as a blogger; that of all things in my life, I choose to write on and dedicate this platform for this particular role that I chose to take on since 2012. Funny when the truth is, I have never been so eager to put on this hat.

I once asked my husband – why did you ever want to marry me? I have no observable motherly trait in general, while he himself, as he admitted when we were both introduced, wanted as many as 10 children (I limited myself to 3 then, and that limit is still maintained thus far). His answer tickled me: “There is a lot of things I would not do if I just look at face value.”

Let me be honest. I don’t fancy children that much. In general, I am indifferent towards children – but now that I chose to have them, I give my all to fulfil the role.

The keyword is choice. My choice. Yes, I did suggest for us to make a move to have Isa back then, but for this second pregnancy I pretty much succumbed to my husband’s rationale on why both of us should try for another one. He reasoned that I am getting older and pregnancy would be tougher on me, Isa is seemingly ready for another one, and perhaps, my husband who is a child-magnet just craves for another person to love. I agreed with him, though not wholeheartedly, for things like this there may not be a truly perfect time.

But I was just about to enjoy my freedom. Isa has only stopped breastfeeding for less than a year and I was delighted to throw away my nursing bras. It means I could stop worrying about pumping my milk out. Isa is getting more independent. Both of us could now do a lot of fancy things together like going shopping just the both of us. Or leave him with a family member for me to do things I need to do on my own. I could now pick up a book and not be disturbed. I could manage some good night sleep. The threesome life we have then (and at least for a few more days) was wonderful, and I guess I try to hold on to it as long as I could.

And pregnancy robs those away. It is not unforeseen, though. My first pregnancy was not problem-free, and I have reminded my husband that the second one may just be as challenging. It is. The horrible morning sickness that left me hospitalised for a few nights was the climax. The second trimester went smoothly except for the daily acid reflux and heartburn, but came the third semester and hence the heaviness, I just could not help but thinking that this could be my last take on pregnancy. My husband has heard this so many times – that I’d rather have him marry someone else if he really wants more children than I could bear. Not once that I have to ask him, in all naivety – why, for God’s sake, do I have to get pregnant, or why do we have to have children.

I sound ungrateful.

Maybe I am, God forgive me. Maybe to you, I seem to take pregnancy for granted. Some waited years and years to carry a human being in their wombs and here I am whining about all these. Maybe that is true – I could not comprehend the magnitude of blessing a pregnancy is when it comes as I wish, as I plan – in both case actually.

Or maybe I am just nervous. The baby I am carrying make no mistake, – as cliché as it sounds, is loved before she is born, but every child is different. She could be a total opposite of my easy, textbook firstborn that my life would change drastically again after this in a way I could not predict. It is the uncertainty that is killing me now, perhaps.

Or perhaps I am just too tired. The heaviness, the pain, the sluggishness – it slows me down, and this nesting instinct is forever pushing me to do a lot of things when I just could not. The sheer disability produces stress, and stress makes me a bad mother – a truly bad mother to my first born, and that in turn makes me even more stressful.

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This afternoon, I sat down looking at the drawer full of my unborn child’s outfits. All pinks and purples and ribbons and cute stuff.

Just a few moments ago, I started packing my hospital bag.

And thank God after doing these, I finally feel the anticipation for the new family member. Not the kind where I’d scream “Just get out of my body once and for all”, but one where it sounds more like how a normal mother would welcome her child.

To my daughter, I could not wait for you to join me in this new adventure.