According to linguists, children are able to pick up as many languages as they are exposed to, especially at a young age (before the onset of puberty). The mind is a sponge, they say, and so children are able to listen, absorb and store the many nuances of language in their memory. This is why it is also important that grownups refrain from using baby talk when speaking to their children. They should instead become role models for proper speech.
When my daughter turned three, we moved to the east coast of Malaysia. Terengganu is a predominantly Malay-speaking region, and so one of the challenges of moving there was the lack of exposure my daughter would have to the English language.
As parents, my husband and I made a conscious decision to use Bahasa Malaysia with my daughter from birth to age three. It was a deliberate choice to make her fluent in her mother tongue first so that she could understand her Terengganu and Kelantan-speaking grandparents easily. When conversing with my husband though, I'd speak in whatever language that was comfortable: English and Bahasa Malaysia, or both at the same time in one sentence ("rojak", as Malaysians call it). Then there were our dialects: tokse or tak mboh (no), molek (good), jugok (too). These are words that we incorporate in our daily speech. It is our fun way of speaking at home that is unique to our identity.
As for English, we introduced it to my daughter when she was four. The most natural way of doing this was to use the language during our mother-daughter activities.
I'll be sharing with you some of the things that we did that will hopefully get you to become confident at introducing English at home. Remember, it's never too late to start, and why not have a little bit of fun as you and your children explore conversational English at home? (Side note: These tips are meant for beginners and those living in a non-English speaking environment. So if you're an advanced speaker, then you can share your personal tips in the comments below!)
Tip #1: Have mini English sessions at specific times e.g. bath time, in the car
When it is bath time for your child, it is actually a perfect opportunity to create an intimate, practical English session (inside a clean, fragrant-smelling toilet, of course)!
Here are some phrases you can use as you bathe your child:
Let's get you ready for the day.
You'll be nice and clean after this.
I'm going to pour shampoo on your hair. Close your eyes.
The soap smells so lemony!
Another perfect opportunity is in the car. How many of us are stuck in the car for more than half an hour with our little ones every single day? How about creating an English speaking environment in your car? This means giving clear narrations, instructions or advice in English. Here are some examples:
Let's go to school.
Be a good girl.
Listen to your teacher.
I'll pick you up in the afternoon.
Have a great day!
I confess, when I first started speaking English to my daughter, it did feel awkward. Some parents have told me that they feel the same way! They've asked me how to overcome this especially when their child starts to stare at you, ignores you, or worse, say to you:
"Sudahlah, Mama! Bunyi pelik la bila Mama cakap dalam B.I!"
The following tip might be helpful to get your child used to hearing you speak in this "pelik" sounding language. And you too can stop feeling embarrassed when your child rolls her eyes. (Warning: the title for tip number 2 is rather long.)
Tip #2: Speak in Malay and English, at the same time, using an identical tone
This tip might require hard work and some creativity, but I've used this technique myself and it's a fun challenge: I'd translate Malay phrases into English and adopt an identical tone when I deliver them.
So if I was saying this cheerfully: "Jom pergi ke sekolah!" I'd be just as perky when I speak in English: “Let's go to school!” I’d say both, one phrase after another.
Here’s another example. If I had whispered to her ears: "Mama nak Umairah jadi anak yang solehah, okey?" Then I'd also whisper to her: “I want you to be a good girl, okay?”
Yes, it is possible to say the same thing twice (repetition is good), using identical intonation to say them, but in two languages. When your child begins to understand these English phrases, or you no longer feel weird about speaking English, then you can drop the translation and use English only. Try it and tell me what you think!
Tip #3: Ask open-ended questions and help them respond in English
Open-ended questions are questions that allow the person to elaborate their response. It's more than giving a one word "yes" or "no". So instead of asking, "Did you have fun at school today?" (where they'd say "yes" or "no"), ask specific questions like: "What did you have for lunch?"
They might answer in Malay: "Nasi ayam" (chicken rice). Your job is to teach them how to elaborate by saying: "I see. You had nasi ayam for lunch. Chicken rice." Then get them to repeat after you. “I had chicken rice for lunch.”
You can try this technique with other open-ended questions and help them to reply in English. Here is another example:
You: What's your favourite cartoon?
You: I see. Your favourite cartoon is Boboiboy.
(Get them to repeat it with “My favourite cartoon is….)
Tip #4: Read books out loud in English
This is a chance for you to brush up on your pronunciation and acting skills! When reading English language books to your child, it's natural that your child will stop to ask what the story is about. And if they don't understand English at all, then their mind may also start to wander.
So what should you do? Continue to read and ignore how bored they are?
When this happened to my daughter, I'd have to narrate the story in Malay. This meant stopping at crucial parts in the story and translating the dialogues. My daughter finds my storytelling technique fascinating. I think it's because she yearned to understand English so that she doesn't need my Malay translation anymore to get to the interesting parts faster!
Now, at age seven, she’s even begun to use this translation technique. So if she was reading a Malay book, she'd translate it into English. Of course, it's not accurate but it's important that you let your child’s imagination go wild. This creates a love for reading, experimenting and discovery along the way.
There's no right or wrong in storytelling. Make reading, in whatever language, a fun session, not a chore or a punishment. Having fun is key in the next and final tip.
Tip #5: Associate English with something pleasant
This is important. Try not to use English when you're scolding your child. Refrain from associating it with something bad, like using English to bark your orders: "Go put that plate in the kitchen!" or "Go to bed now!" or worse, "Shut up!"
You don’t want your child to associate English with an angry voice. This is not a strict no-no, it's just my view based on observation. I think back to a time when children, in the past, was introduced to reading the Qur'an (in Arabic). For many children, reading the Qur’an was a frustrating session; they ended up either getting pinched, yelled at, or bursting into tears. This is why (in my humble opinion) you have children growing up to associate reading the Qur'an with something unpleasant or painful especially when it was taught in a stressful way.
Therefore, let's introduce English language at home (and any other language for that matter) by using it as an opportunity to express affection and adoration to your children. For example, use English to praise them: "What a clever boy you are!", "Good job at arranging those shoes!", or to express your gratitude for good behaviour: "Thank you for taking that cup back to the kitchen!" You may even add loving nicknames for your child: "Thank you, my princess", "That was a thoughtful thing you did, sweetheart."
I hope that the tips I've shared can jump start your creative approach towards introducing and using English at home. Once you start these habits, you become an active learner while imparting a positive attitude towards lifelong learning on your children.
So let's get started on creating a beautiful bond with your loved ones using English! And don't forget that all languages and dialects are beautiful, so don't limit yourself with just one choice at home: let your children be exposed to many languages and dialects in a fun, safe and creative way!
If you find this article beneficial, do share, or write your thoughts below. If you have other unique tips, then share them in the comments below! Let's create an environment of learning and growth together.
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