Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Bilingualism: An asset in life.

It's been a long day at work today. I am physically, emotionally & mentally tired. Agent E has so far booked me in for a week block at a childcare centre in a shopping mall near my flat. Work has been fantastic this week. The Director of the centre is great. The staff work well together. It's also great that I don't actually have to take the bus, but I have to walk a distance every morning for about almost 45 minutes. Its a bit strenuous, but so far the exercise has been great. My colleague recommends that I take the bus, (which may only take 2 minutes for the entire ride), so I was thinking perhaps that is a better time-saving option.

At the centre I am based, there is a lot of children from all ethnic groups. Anyways this thought came to me as at this centre, its amazing that I am able to understand the children who hail from so many different nations when they speak either Bahasa Indon (obviously from Indonesia), China (in Mandarin), Hong Kong (cantonese), as well as the local children (in English, of course). However what you may not know too is that I am also a Chinese who is brought up in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia... Now, how is that relevant?

Malaysia is pretty much a "multi-cultural" country, with the official language being Bahasa Malaysia (which is different from Bahasa Indonesia, but there are similarities). All official primary & high school exams are undertaken in Bahasa Malaysia, except for language papers (Mandarin & English, that is). Apart from that, most people who live in the capital city read & write in the English language. As a chinese, most of us speak either one of our main dialects (Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka) and for those who go to a Chinese medium school, that would be written & spoken Mandarin.

I was just thinking to myself that if I were ever to settle down in Australia, I would do as my cousin Kim (a Malaysian born Chinese) has done in The States. She speaks to her children in Mandarin, and her husband (who is Vietnamese born Chinese) speaks to them in Cantonese. The children speak English at school. It is the only way that they as parents could ensure that their home language maintains its continuity, and it has worked so far as both the children now are able to converse between three languages interchangeably (and they're still only in elementary school!).

How many of you readers out there are able to speak (nevermind if you can't read or write it) three languages interchangeably by the age of 10 without attending formal language classes?

Now you might think that the English language is the most important language in the world (well, it is important in the workplace, socially & for moving up the career ladder). It is to an extent important, but no school teacher is going to tell me that I have to speak to my children in English if I didn't want to.

I once met an acquaintance who told me that his children's school teacher was telling him that he had to speak to his children in English (the father is an Australian born Chinese who married a French lady, so they both speak French at home). I am just going to tell my readers that no school teacher is also going to tell me, nor intimidate me by telling me that my children won't succeed in life, or have a developmental delay if they can't still master the English language when at elementary school.

In my opinion, it is important to anyone (and more so for a Chinese) to be able to speak their own ethnic language. It is of even more importance when they are in a foreign land to be able to do so. My mother made the mistake of not speaking to us in Mandarin (she was educated in a Chinese medium school), so my brother & I grew up being "bananas". "Bananas" is the term that is given to a chinese who is "yellow on the outside, but white on the inside". It is also a term used in Malaysia for the chinese people who don't speak Mandarin. However, my parents & relatives spoke Cantonese, so I grew up in that environment. But I barely spoke Cantonese much as a child until my later adult years.

For the record (and uninformed), I can read & write both in English & Bahasa Malaysia. I also speak Cantonese, & understand some Mandarin. As you can probably tell from all my past entries, I have a pretty good command of the English language & its grammar. Since I scored a band 8 in Academic IELTS (for all testing areas), you can pretty much be rest assured that it can't be all that bad. LOL.

Fluency in two language is the minimum norm for most Malaysians, and three to four is about the max. My friend, Ai Ling who went to a chinese medium primary school, is now currently in Japan teaching English to adults. Surprisingly, her command of the English language (actually not just her, but all her siblings who were educated in a chinese medium school), have an extounding command of the English language that puts many white Australians & Americans to shame, in terms of both grammar, vocabulary & spelling skills (I bet they're going to check this entry, since I've linked them... LOL). The four siblings can read & write in Bahasa Malaysia, English & Chinese.

With China being a major trade player, many now realize how important the ability to speak another language is, and many too are (if not already) enrolling to learn the Mandarin language. I had to do that for work purposes a couple of years back on my own initiative. Maintaining the home language is also important for a family to maintain its family roots, across the nations if they have migrated, as well as the pride of its ethnicity. Yes, and I can say that I am proud of my heritage of being a Chinese, and being able to speak Cantonese and Mandarin (no matter how half-broken it is.) LOL.

With that in mind, if your children are going to an English-medium school and as a parent if you can read & write Chinese (or any other language for that matter), make sure you transmit and pass it off as an inheritance to your children when they are still able to absorb it effortlessly. They may not like it much, or hate you for making them study it, but they will thank you for it in their later adult years when they did not have to pay heaps of money & waste a lot of time in the quest to pick up another language.

It is also definitely a way to pick up the opposite gender as well . . .

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