2 years

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.


Some foods for thoughts:

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

2. Is bilingualism really an advantage?


Eid-ul Adha 2014


This Eidul Adha we spent it at my in-law’s place, and Isa had a great time having every uncles and aunt’s attention. We brought him along to the mosque for the Eid prayer, and my husband reported that he behaved well (by the way, we arrived just in time before the prayer started), and got to see the cows and goats that were to be sacrificed.

And I have to say, Isa looked so adorable (I mean, which mom would not think her child NOT adorable) in that ‘jubah’ my mom bought him 😀

Eid Mubarak my readers, may the year bring you blessings and happiness!

For the Love of Learning

The other day I was clipping Isa’s fingernails. He is more cooperative these days to have his nails clipped and cleaned, so we could hold decent conversations that doesn’t include me screaming to have his movement restrained.

So I began talking to him, in Malay of course, but translated into this:

“Isa, when you are bigger, you can clip your nails yourself.”

“Isa is big,” he protested. He has been claiming to be all ‘grown-up’ since a few weeks ago, so I said:

“Okay, when you know how to do it later, you can clip them yourself.”

To which he responded:

“Isa (will) learn.”

I felt like crying in happiness straightaway.

All this while, if there’s anything, any lessons that I’d like him to embrace it would be for him to love learning. To keep learning. I’ve seen numerous instances in my short life where people just stop learning, and have no whatsoever desire and drive to learn – you are neglecting the God’s command for life long learning. You are stuck in the comfort zone – and that is the worst thing that could happen. You have no curiosity at all.

That is why hearing Isa says something that shows he has understood the fact that what stands between his current self (of not knowing) and knowing (how to clip his nails, in this case) is the process called ‘learning’, without me even mentioning it first, made me thankful and inspired enough to keep doing what I am doing.

O Allah, please instill the love and desire to learn in my children, so they can better themselves – to please You eventually. May Allah guide us.

What’s Your Child’s Love Language?

I knew about Gary Chapman’s Five Love Language some time before I got married, and it has been a long time since we husband and wife discussed about it. We did talk about it briefly before the wedding as part of getting to know each other, but at this moment I could not remember what he said at that time. After three years of marriage and knowing him more closely, I think I know mine and his love languages better.

It was not until a few weeks back that I was reminded to analyze Isa’s love language. He is still a toddler, and perhaps all toddlers need a bit of words of affirmation, physical touch, acts of service, receiving gifts and quality time. Nevertheless, I can spot some particular habits of his that points towards a specific language.

And I suspect his primary love language is physical touch.

Isa is a big ‘hugger’ for instance.

There was one occasion when my family members were sitting together and he started to hug each one of us – me, my parents, my sisters, my brothers and his cousin. He was barely two at that time, and my nephew (whose development I followed quite closely) has never shown such behavior. And he still does that often with family members.

Whenever he noticed that I am angry with him – or when I made it clear through “Mommy is upset with you!” – his reaction was priceless; he’d immediately scream “I want to hug mommy” a few times.

These days it is even clearer. Sometimes in the car, when he is safely secured in his carseat, he would ask for my hand “Mommy, I want to hold your hand!” – which often results in my hand being overstretched to reach him from the co-pilot set, and at some extremes – he insisted on hugging me from the passenger seat which is of course impossible.

He also loves backrubs – which according to this slide is a clear clue of his primary love language – physical touch. I’d offer him backrubs when putting him to sleep, and there are days when he’d move his clothes just to have my hand directly touch his skin. I mean, that is a really clear sign, no?

It is true that we should not assume that boys need physical touch any less than girls – my son could be an example.

And I guess Isa is just lucky to have a mom whose primary love language is physical touch too, that his inclination is, well, more than happily received.

My Little Chatterbox

I read in my favourite book ‘Einstein Never Used Flashcards’ that children, all children in fact, are wired to learn language. It’s in the God-given DNA that we human are able to learn language in ways that the experts are still trying to find out.

I agree to the statement, solely based on my observation on Isa’s language and verbal development. Isa has been starting to string more words together constructing more sophisticated sentences each day, and there are no days I am not gob-smacked by the capacity of a human being to learn, especially given the right support and catalyst.

These days I noticed that Isa has started to use conjunctions (Malay: kata hubung), or rather attempted to do so. His attempts include trying to use the word ‘tapi’ i.e. but. He got it wrong the way he used it, of course, but guess what, he gets the intonation correct! It sounds so dramatic like “Isa wants this, buuuuuuut….” I guess he picks it up somewhere, and yet to figure out how to use it properly.

By the way, he has started the “questioning” phase, which sometimes startles me. The last few days we’ve been seeing my GPs and we brought him along into the consultation rooms, only to face a lot of questions from him, after his brief observation period:

“Why is the ‘sister’ here? (Referring to the chaperon)”

“What is the doctor doing?”

“What is that on the table?”

And that curiosity warrants a free vitamin tablet from the doctor each time – which he likes – so I guess he won’t stop asking questions soon!

HFMD, potentially.

Isa is sick, and it has been a long time since he has fallen sick the way he is now.

You know, the kind of illness that makes my heart feels unbearably heavy whenever I look at him.

I suspect that it is HFMD. The GP we met couldn’t confirm it with the absence of lesions on his hands and feet, but he is clearly suffering from numerous mouth ulcers.

He had mild fever since Friday, and it wasn’t until Saturday that the condition becomes worse. I can see he is not as energetic as he always is, and by Saturday evening he refuses milk and food and his saliva started to drip from his mouth.

It hurts me to see him this way.

He is clearly missing his night feeding, and he cried a lot. By Sunday both of us parents are already living zombies.

And now that he can speak, it pains me even more to hear him wailing ‘Sakit, sakit’ ( painful, painful) whenever he tries to suck his bottle.

I am trying to remind myself that this is a test for me. It is a viral infection, all I need to do is be patient with The irritable Isa, and wait for it to be over. Learn to completely leave it to God, and be reminded that there’s only so much I can do. Only so much.

There is a lesson for me in helplessness.

P.s and just a note, my little chatterbox still can’t stop talking despite the ulcers.

Places He Remembers

A few months ago I realised that Isa has already recognised places and routes he frequented. He remembers the road towards my office cum his crèche (his crèche is in my office building), he remembers the usual route heading towards our home.

And of course, he recognizes his father’s office, after all KLCC Twin Tower is a famous landmark, a tall building he can actually observe from miles away.

While there are days that we spent hanging out at KLCC Twin Tower waiting for his father to finish his work, these days since we are commuting separately, myself and Isa just go straight back home.

But there have been a few times, where Isa urges me to take a right turn, the turn he knows will lead us to his father’s office, just like yesterday.

But this time around he added more emphasis: “Ofis ayah ada buku Isa” i.e. “Father’s office has Isa’s books.”

I truly know what he was referring to.

It was Kinokuniya at Suria KLCC,where we went to buy his story books last month.It is  my favourite bookstore  and now his favourite (hope so), apparently memorable place too! 

Yeay to books!