I remember vividly when I visited my classmate, Beth (not her real name), at her house about 20 years ago. Her younger brother happened to be in the house at that time and asked her about something in Hakka which I did not understand. After watching her response, I had to ask her why she spoke so rudely to him. Every word that she uttered to him sounded like bullets being fired from a rifle. I can still remember her response very clearly, “What do you mean? That’s the way Hakka is spoken.”
Beth, who is in her mid-thirties is also fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese, English, Malay and French. She studied in a Chinese vernacular primary school followed by a ‘Kebangsaan’ secondary school, and graduated from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. She met her French husband at university and settled down in France after graduating. She got married and has been residing in France for more than ten years. She is a mother of two lovely boys and is able to read, write and converse in French. I must highlight here that she took her driving licence test in French and managed to pass the first try while a majority of the French have to take the test at least twice to pass!
Research shows that the window period for one to acquire languages is between zero and 10 years old. How was it possible that Beth continued to pick-up languages two decades thereafter and is able to be competent in them? In an interview held with her recently, she credits her success to her easy-going mannerism and adaptability to different environment. She also whispered to me that Hakka women are known to be determined and fearless so she thinks that that’s where she mustered the courage to live up to Nike’s motto, “Just do it.”
I got to know Mel, a fresh graduate, last year who shared that she went to Germany at 19 after completing her A-levels. She enrolled in Manheim University of Applied Sciences and was given a period of one year to study her course in bilingual languages – English and German. The second year onward, she had to study all her course subjects in German. Was she given a chance to pick up German prior to that? Yes, she attended a three-month intensive course before going to Germany. One may doubt if three months was enough but she was able to pick-up the language up to a point that she obtained a Degree in Biotechnology within three and a half years in Germany!
Mel credits her success to her mum. She admitted that her first year was extremely challenging. Thanks to her mum, a Mathematics teacher, who happened to be traveling in Europe at that time. They met up and Mel received an intensive course from her mum for one of her first year’s subject, Statistics. Mel translated her lecture notes and exercises, word for word, from German to English for her mum. In the recent telephone interview with her, she testified, “My mum simplified everything for me and I sat for the examination, and emerged as one of the two in my class (the other being a German) to score an excellent 1.0 in German standards in the subject. That pretty much motivated me until the end of the course. My mum always tells me that, tough times never last but tough people do”.
A student’s mum whose child is proficient in English and Mandarin shared that her child does not seem to think that learning English and Mandarin at school is a chore. Her husband and she started speaking to the child in English since birth whereas the child’s grandmother who became the child’s primary care-giver since age four, speaks to the child in Mandarin. The child is now 12 and studying in Chinese vernacular school. She is able to read, write and converse proficiently in both languages.
In my opinion, it is evident that to be proficient in any languages, one needs to be immersed in the environment where the language is spoken. The people from the three live stories above have either lived or are living with those who speak the same language. Support from loved ones plays an important role to induce a positive and loving environment for the learner. One’s willingness to acquire and use the language is also crucial in the success to be proficient.
As a parent and educator, I would strongly suggest that if you would like for your child to pick up a new language that no one at home speaks, and if your child is under six, allow him or her to acquire the language in a less structured environment such as through play groups, social groups and language schools that do not enforce learning solely from books. Learners of all ages must involve their five senses in the journey of language acquisition. Learning using the senses involve not just the thoughts but the heart and feelings of a person. As what Benjamin Franklin quoted, “Tell me and I will forget, teach me and I will remember, involve me and I will learn”.