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The Trilingual Thai-Desi

by Webmaster Masala

Masala busts the myths on learning multiple languages.

By Amornrat Sidhu

All of us have experienced the fascinating question, “where are you from?” Regardless of which country you were raised, you will always have to verify your answer, most often, with language. If I say I am Thai, they want to know if I can speak it. If I say I am Indian, even my Indian students from India challenge me to speak, read and write Hindi or Punjabi. Language is so personal, yet the struggle of Thai Indians to be bilingual or trilingual is real, with English rearing its dominant head. Members of the Thai-Desi community also share their motivations and experiences when picking up another vernacular.

Busting Myths around Language Learning

MYTH 1: Mistakes should be worried about and corrected immediately.

If you or your child is learning a new language, mistakes are part of the process. They just mean that you are discovering the rules. For example, if you say ‘runned’ instead of ‘ran’, it’s good! You just fi gured out and attempted the basic rule to conform verbs into English. It may even take a few 100 trials before all mistakes disappear, but worry not, as this is to be expected.

MYTH 2: Children are like sponges. They will become bilingual with no eff ort and time.

There is a difference between learning a language and acquiring it. Babies and children before the age of seven have remarkable language acquisition abilities—they are primed to pick it up quickly. For example, infants recognise their native language, and if their mum is bilingual, then both will be identified. However, that does not mean that they can just learn what they hear on the radio. Children require exposure to the right type of language and people who use them so that they can understand and make use of what they see, feel and are interested in.

MYTH 3: After a certain age, it is impossible to learn a language.

After seven years of age, an individual’s language acquisition ability begins to wear off . He or she would still be able to learn a language, but much more effort would be required, as accents may not be organic and absolute fluency may never be reached. Of course, the earlier you begin, the more exposure you will have, and the more time and effort you will spend working on it—all of which significantly impacts fluency. Still, it is never too late to learn!

The Top Four Guidelines to Language Acquisition and Learning

1 What is your plan?

What are your expectations for yourself or your child? Do you want to become ambilingual (where you can move between two languages at a native level), or semilingual (where you have mastered your native tongue with bits and pieces of other languages)? Do you want your child to be completely fluent in English, but only speak Thai rather than reading and writing it?

Acknowledging your expectations is an important first step that will guide you or your child’s second and third language-learning journey.

2 Practice the minority language at home

When the dominant community language is English (or Thai), parents should only speak Punjabi or Hindi at home without fail, and with no exceptions. This is a powerful structure to follow especially when parents have limited time with their child. However, parents have to be aware of their own proficiency levels. If you are not proficient in a language, speaking or teaching your child the same skills with no support can hinder the process. For example, in mixed families where the mother is Thai and the father is foreign, it can do more harm than good for the mum to speak in broken English (or French or German) with the child.

3 Be realistic

To solely speak a language, a person must be exposed to it for approximately 30 percent of his or her waking time. A child can absorb about four languages at the same time, but how much waking time does he or she have to learn, experiment and practice them?

4 It’s what you say

If you want to contribute to anyone’s language development, be the type of person who will not correct a mistake, but continue with the conversation by reinforcing the right version of the statement. For instance, if a toddler says, “they no eat,” respond with, “correct. They are not eating.” This is a better alternative to “No, don’t say that…They are not eating.”

Food for Thought: What other people think about multilingualism…

Ratna Khanijou: 29-YEAR-OLD PHD STUDENT

What do you think helped you pick up languages?

“As a child, I was exposed to four languages at once in various dimensions: Thai, Punjabi, Hindi and English. At school, we learnt all four. At home, my dad used to read storybooks to us in Thai, my mum used to read Punjabi with me (in the form of Gurbani) in the mornings, whereas English was a spoken norm amongst my siblings. I think exposure to various aspects of language as a child, and practicing them with your family, are vital to language acquisition.”


Why do you think being multilingual is important?

“Being multilingual is like having a secret weapon. It is beneficial when you travel, as it heightens your experience of culture, literature, entertainment and firsthand interactions with locals. More importantly, being multilingual improved my memory and boosted my self-confidence.”


What motivated you to learn various languages?

“We live in a world where different languages cater to different needs. My motivation to speak Punjabi was so that I could connect with my grandparents. Although they are well-versed in English and Thai, Punjabi comes naturally to them. Then it was necessary to read and write Punjabi in order to understand the Guru Granth Sahib, so I committed myself to growing in those areas.” “I found Thai to be quite challenging. I can converse, read and write Thai because of the exposure in school. However, the main factor that motivated me to continue learning the language was realising the difficulty of getting things done without it — even a simple written food order to avoid standing in a long queue in university would not be possible without help.”

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