By Afiqah Abdul Mohid

“One Language sets you in a corridor for life. Two Languages open every door along the way.” – Frank Smith

If I had a dollar for every time I get someone asking me “you’re really good at English but you’re not from here and I swear I heard you speak a different language to your parents”, I would probably be able to pay off my debts.

As a migrant, it is not uncommon to speak two or more languages.

A Little Background Reading

Born and raised in Singapore before moving to Australia ten years ago, it is only natural for me that I am able to communicate in two languages.

Singapore has 4 official languages: English, Chinese Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. Singapore’s bilingual policy, implemented in 1966, it is a requirement for every child to learn English and their mother tongue. English is the main language taught in schools as the Singapore Government believes that English the language of public administration, education, commerce, science and technology, and global communication, it has become the medium by which most Singaporeans gain access to information and knowledge globally. Children also learn their mother tongues to ensure that they stay in touch with their traditional roots — Mandarin Chinese for Chinese, Malay for Malays and Tamil for ethnically Tamil Indians.

In an increasingly globalised and multilingual world, Singapore’s bilingual policy sufficiently prepared me and created a lifelong interest in learning other languages.

Bilingualism – How Does It Work and What Are Its Advantages?

Bilingualism is not a topic unfamiliar in multicultural Australia. Bilingual refers to having some ability to use two or more languages. According to Griffith University, you do not necessarily need to be speaking two languages with native-like proficiency to be considered as a bilingual. In truth, it is rare for people to be fluent in two languages; most people will have a ‘dominant’ language.

Bilingual speakers have greater literacy and linguistic skills than monolingual speakers. In the last two decades, many studies have presented evidence showing a positive influence of bilingualism on children’s cognitive and linguistic abilities observed as by Rafael Diaz in the Review of Research volume 10 in 1983. More recently, new brain research has highlighted the particular and unique cognitive processes engaged in learning a second language, and the ways that such cognition supports other learning processes. Linguistic and also spatial and emotional thinking are some of the particular examples.  Using a second language encompasses sophisticated knowledge and skills and extends competency in the main language. Neuro-imaging of bilingual children’s brains shows some evidence of more complex and broader cerebral activity than monolingual students.

The differences in the brain between different language-users.
The differences in the brain between different language-users. | Source: thathealthsite.com

Bilingualism and raising bilingual children is said to be beneficial for not only children but for families and the community.

Monolingual individuals are said to get more frustrated as they have limited understanding and capacities to communicate and interact as global operators compared to those with various language skills.

Being bilingual in Australia definitely has its perks. As Malay is my mother tongue, while it is not as common as Chinese Mandarin, it helps me connect with other Malay migrants as well as international students. By picking German in high school, job offers have been made because I have a basic understanding of the language.

Case Study: The Pereira-Ishak Family

[From left to right] Iylia, Najid, and Nadirah Pereira-Ishak | Source: Afiqah Abdul Mohid
[From left to right] Iylia, Najid, and Nadirah Pereira-Ishak | Source: Afiqah Abdul Mohid
The Pereira-Ishak family are an interesting mix. Mr Iman (formerly known as Carl) was born in Kenya although he is Portuguese, while his wife, Madam Norhayati, is a Singaporean Malay. They have three university-going children, Iylia, Najid, and Nadirah – all were born in Australia. Despite their cultural background, the children have very limited knowledge of Malay or Portuguese.

I tried to teach them since they were young,” said Madam Norhayati in Malay. “They told me there’s no point as they had no one to practice it with in school.”

Iylia and his siblings have only recently realised how important it was to learn one of their native tongues.

“When often host our relatives from Malaysia or Singapore at our place,” said Iylia. “They can speak English fine, but they’d often swap to Malay when conversing with mum and we sometimes wished we could understand what they were saying so we’d feel included in the conversation.”

Australia: A Migrant History

Monthly arrivals of permanent settlers since 1976.
Monthly arrivals of permanent settlers since 1976. | Source: Tony Hudson, ABS Data

Australia’s population has always been comprised by migration – the earliest settlement by the Indigenous Australians was at least 40,000 years. These Indigenous Australians migrated from nearby islands of Indonesia and New Guinea.

European settlers first arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries, before the British colonisation in 1788. From then, the population began to grow steadily, but it significantly increased after World War 2.

Graphs depicting countries of birth of migrants through the years.
Graph depicting countries of birth of migrants through the years. | Source: ABS

Today, the population continues to grow with more migrants coming into Australia as skilled migrants and more controversially, illegally without a visa – which leads to mandatory detention of individuals.

A research published by The Daily Telegraph in 2012 showed that those who participated in their research were in favour of not accepting anymore migrants – this has increased by 10% since 2005.

Summary of birthplaces of citizens in Sydney City.
Summary of birthplaces of citizens in Sydney City. | Source: profile.id.com.au

Tongue-Tied – Two Common Misconceptions On Being Bilingual

Does speaking two or more languages confuse children?
No. Children are able to learn two or more languages at the same time and can differentiate between languages at a young age.

Will speaking two or more languages at home affect the way children learn English?
No. A good knowledge of a native language can help children with learning the language of the wider community e.g. English. Bilingual children who have a solid foundation in their native language learn the main language easily and do better at school than children who don’t.


Further Reading:

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