One of my greatest regrets in life, actually my only regret, is that I don’t speak my native language, or any other language fluently.
Now I’m grateful that I ended up with English, because it is probably the world’s richest language for literature and vocabulary. But language – together with food – is intricately tied with culture and identity. Indeed, without it, a culture invariably dies. So there goes my heritage.
I do actually speak four languages, well enough to communicate comfortably on a simple level. But I can’t claim real mastery or full fluency in any but English. Even my Malay, embarrassingly, is not great.
Languages are hard work for me. I believe it’s down to learning styles, which can be auditory, visual or kinaesthetic (learning by doing). I’m mostly visual – I learn best with visual methods, such as reading and pictures. I still remember my little multiplication table book from primary school, even down to the font type, layout and the worn dog ear on the front. When I do multiplication, images from that book often come to mind.
Visual learners struggle with language tones and pronunciation, as this involves aural skills. Auditory learners, by contrast, learn best by listening, which gives them a natural aptitude for languages. My brother-in-law is a strong auditory learner and speaks several languages fluently. He went to the Middle East for a year to work, and came back with Arabic. He loves to learn from YouTube videos, podcasts or CDs.
I haven’t given up. My goal is to have full fluency in one other language in five years.
Given my pace of learning languages, five years feels like a tight deadline. Yet my own children, at five years, were bilingual. They now speak with the appropriate mastery for their age in two languages, with perfect pronunciation that just floors me. This didn’t happen “naturally”. It took considerable effort and planning.
I was determined to give them the gift of language. And I knew it was infinitely better to learn very young. We learn languages best before about seven years old, the age children begin school here.
In fact, children who do not learn to speak before this age seldom learn later. In the rare cases of “feral” children, wild children with little or no exposure to human care, many never learn how to speak. The real-life cases of Mowgli are often tragic.
The “Indian wolf boy” Dina Sanichar and the “wolf children” Kamala and Amala, all cared for by wolves in the wild, never learnt to speak. A more modern version, Shamdeo, acquired some sign language but never learnt to speak.
One particularly tragic case was Genie, a severely abused American child kept isolated and chained to a chair for her entire childhood. Her father, who didn’t like noise, refused to allow her mother and brother to speak to her. When she was found at 13 years old in 1972, she could only say a handful of words. After persistent efforts by teachers, she learnt more words, but could not construct a sentence. After abuse in care again, she regressed. She now lives in an institution in California.
Conversely, the feral children found before seven did manage to speak later, such as John Ssebunya, the “monkey boy” from Uganda found at six years of age. He also had lived with his parents for the first three years of his life – before he ran away when he saw his father murder his mother.
Oxana Malaya, found at age eight living with dogs in Ukraine in 1991, also learnt to speak – but had also learnt language from her parents in her first three years.
A child’s brain is far more plastic and more heavily wired than an adult’s. As we age, we lose synapses and plasticity, making learning harder. The window for learning some tasks begins to close. So shouldn’t we teach languages to children when they’re very young?
After all, bilingualism has many benefits, not least the obvious one of communication for social and business reasons. It also, literally, makes you smarter, improving cognitive skills, memory, mental flexibility and other brain functions. The bilingualism that is common in Malaysia is a great boon for us. It’s something we need to strengthen.
Imagine a scenario where the norm is national bilingual kindergartens that effectively train young children in two languages.
Languages are not just important for communication but understanding other cultures. It could be such a gift for racial unity if we’re all polyglots. That’s a dream for the future.
Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health.