Wednesday January 23, 2013
Children have ability to learn multiple languages
Stories by ELAINE DONG
Most Malaysian children are bilingual, and some are motivated to pick up even more languages.
BEING multilingual is almost a given for a child growing up in Malaysia. Most Malaysians can claim to know at least two languages and/or dialects.
We learn Bahasa Malaysia and English in school, and some learn Mandarin or Tamil as well. At home, most Chinese and Indian families still speak in their respective dialects.
Some families also encourage their children to learn other languages beyond the requisite Bahasa Malaysia and English.
Many are born in multiracial families, and they learn the mother tongues of their parents.
Others also encourage their children to pick up languages like French, Japanese or Arabic to open up more opportunities for themselves.
Knowing their roots
Children’s party planner Yeesend Chan wanted her two children to know their roots, and so, she made sure they knew their parents’ mother tongue. Her mother tongue is Mandarin, and her Swiss husband, Swiss German. She has been speaking to the children exclusively in Mandarin since their birth, while her husband converses with them in Swiss German.
During our interview, she talks to her children, Anna, eight, and Kaiter, five, in Mandarin, although they answer her in English.
“Anna used to be very fluent in Mandarin, which I consider her mother tongue.However, when she started kindergarten, she began speaking English, and somehow, she chose that as her main language.
“When Kaiter came along, even though I tried speaking to him exclusively in Mandarin as well, it was more difficult because by then, Anna had already switched to English,” says Chan who communicates with her husband in English.
Chan says her kids understand her when she’s speaking Mandarin; they just refuse to speak it.
Anna goes to a small Chinese school where a majority of the students come from non-Mandarin-speaking Chinese families, so her medium of communication in school is still English. She can read and write Chinese, but is still at the beginner level.
Kaiter learns Mandarin in kindergarten as well. Both of them know a little Bahasa Malaysia.
Chan does not speak Swiss German, so her husband is teaching the children.
“We make it a point to go back to Switzerland once a year, and stay for at least two weeks, for the kids to catch up with the language. They do, in that short period of time, but when we come back here, they lose that environment,” she says.
She tries to get them Swiss German books to read.
“German stories are very different from American or Australian stories. The illustrations are also very different. I hope they can have the benefit of different cultures,” she says.
“Before this, there was a Swiss family with whom we socialised a lot. That was great for improving the children’s language. But they have since left,” says Chan.
For her, the most important reason for wanting her children to know Mandarin and Swiss German is so that they know their roots. But she says once her children identified their main language as English, it was hard to switch.
“Knowing other languages also makes kids more tolerant of other cultures and of people who are different from them,” says Chan.
An organic process
Home baker Sureerat Karna is a Thai married to a Malaysian, and has taught her son Lavitt Karna Thai as it’s part of his heritage.
She had learnt English as an adult, and it took her a few years to master the language, despite being a diligent student. She recalls constantly hounding her Malaysian Indian mother-in-law with a Thai-English dictionary when she first moved to Kuala Lumpur in 2007. By then, Lavitt was two years old.
“I have been speaking Thai with him since he was born, along with English. His father speaks English with him. Now, he’s eight and he speaks English, but he understands Thai and speaks it occasionally. He is also slowly picking up Tamil from his grandparents, although for the longest time, he resisted,” says Suree, as she is known.
Seeing how difficult it was for her to learn a new language as an adult, she’s hoping her son will bypass the painful process by internalising the various languages from young.
For now, the languages that he’s fluent in are Thai, English and Bahasa Malaysia.
“Thai may come in useful for Lavitt should he choose to make a life in Thailand in the future, and I think the more languages he knows, the better it will be for him,” she says.
She gets him Thai storybooks and lets him watch Thai TV shows. They plan to let him spend time in Thailand every school holiday, and also enrol him in the local schools there should their schedule permit. She is confident that this will greatly accelerate his command of the language. But so far, work has kept her busy.
“I hope I can do that soon,” she says with a smile.
“For now, I try to arrange play groups with my other Thai friends who have children, so that they can mingle and practise speaking Thai.”
She is also thinking of French lessons for him, as he has a cousin who speaks French. “We’ll see how it goes,” she says.
Broadening their options
There are also many parents who encourage their children to master a foreign language for practical reasons.
It was actually a newspaper article that prompted manager Rajes Jeganathan to get her daughters, Dhivyaa and Dheepa Mailvaganam, to learn French.
“It was about a Malaysian guy who had studied medicine in France and settled there. He said it was cheap to study there and the education system was good. So I thought, perhaps I could send my kids there,” says Rajes.
It was this foresight that led her to enrol her elder daughter Dhivyaa, then eight, in the children’s class at Alliance Francaise in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur, nine years ago.
Her second daughter Dheepa soon followed suit. And so, every Saturday, for an hour and a half, the girls would go to French class without fail.
Rajes also took the girls on a holiday to Paris, although they joked that they were more interested in Disneyland during that time.
Dhivyaa, 17, and Dheepa, 15, are now fluent in French. Dhivyaa even completed a two-month exchange programme at a school in Paris last year. Though she had been attending French classes here, living and studying in France helped to improve her fluency by leaps and bounds.
“I knew all the words, but it was difficult to construct sentences. Despite having studied French for so long, it was still difficult to speak it,” she says.
But she soon got the hang of it while in Paris, and loves the language all the more for it. While Dheepa admits she is not as fluent as her sister, she loves French as well.
“My sister definitely wants to go to France to study, whereas I don’t. But even so, I think French is a great language to pick up,” says Dheepa.
Recently, they went on a holiday to Luxembourg, where French is widely spoken. Both girls took charge of the entire trip, conversing with the locals and finding their way around. It was very empowering for them to be able to put their proficiency in French to use, and Rajes feels that the experience makes all their efforts at mastering the language worth it.
Rajes believes it is easier for children to pick up a new language when they are younger. They pick up more words, and learning the right intonation is easier.
German and Spanish are the next two languages her daughters want to pick up, but Rajes hasn’t been able to find the right classes for them. She’s also thinking of Mandarin, perhaps when they have a bit more time.
Dhivyaa will be sitting for the DELF B2 examination this year, a French proficiency test that is the minimum requirement to get into university, along with A-levels. She scored the third best results in the country in the previous level, DELF B1.
Rajes is waiting to realise her plans of sending her children to study in France, the one that started them on the path to acquiring French.
“I can’t tell you yet if I am right. When my dream becomes a reality, I’ll be very happy. To learn a language is a huge commitment. You must make sure you finish what you start. A lot of time, money and effort is involved. As long as the kids want to and the parents are willing to put in the time and effort, I say go for it!” she says.