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.
Some foods for thoughts: