Does Learning Languages Automatically Make You Globally Competent?
Key Differences Parents Who Want to Raise Bilingual Kids Should Know
Dim Sum Warriors co-creator Dr Woo Yen Yen shows that for kids learning languages, there are better ways than many existing methods which not only miss the point of language acquisition, they risk turning the kids off the languages entirely.
Knowing Many Words in the Language Vs Being Globally Competent
There was a time when I was so stressed about an upcoming Chinese test that I tore up my textbook in tears. I thought I was alone in my negative feelings about Chinese as my second language.
And then I met my husband, who would avoid speaking Chinese as much as possible, even though he had many years of Chinese language classes.
We had both spent many years studying it, and even did well enough in our Chinese exams, but to use it for actual communication beyond maybe ordering food? (And even then it would be limited to muttering “这个(this)” or “那个(that)” while pointing with our fingers.)
This song about the awkward phenomenon has chalked up over a million views in Singapore.
And we learned that we were not alone. Having lived in Singapore, New York City and Taiwan, I have met many parents and teachers who have told me of their kids’ uphill battle learning a second or foreign language.
In Singapore, for example, mommy Jacqueline told me that her 7-year-old son, even though ethnically Chinese, would refuse to use Mandarin and instead, told her, “I’m an English boy”. In Taiwan, many of the moms told me that their kids had memorized a ton of vocabulary, but would be too shy to answer a simple “how are you?” in English. Marianna Pascal, a seasoned English teacher in Malaysia, gives many examples of Malaysian English language learners who start to panic and freeze up and stop listening or speaking in English whenever they encounter someone they think is a “native speaker”.
Meanwhile, on the Dim Sum Warriors Facebook page, we asked parents in Singapore to describe the feelings their kids associate with learning Chinese, and here are just a few: Sian ( Singlish for “lack of enthusiasm”); Frustration; 恐惧 (kǒngjù, fear); Despair; 痛苦 (tòngkǔ, pain). And these are parents who are themselves proficient in Chinese!
There’s a name in academic research for this. It is “language anxiety”.
Researchers MacIntyre and Gregersen define language anxiety as “the feelings of worry and negative, fear-related emotions associated with learning or using a language that is not an individual’s mother tongue”.
And it is very real, and all too common.
Being Globally Competent is More Than Knowing Vocabulary and Grammar
On the other hand, there’s a second group of people I met who have a very different relationship to languages.
People like teacher Alice Hung, who switches very easily and purposefully between English, Mandarin and Taiwanese, has a very relaxed relationship with languages, who pulls words out from her linguistic repertoire to communicate across cultures, whenever it’s appropriate.
Watch Alice demonstrate her effortless language-switching at the Dim Sum Warriors Dragonboat Festival Event:
My own uncle—who was not what we would call an ‘A’ student—puts me to shame by being able to switch easily between English, Mandarin, Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Thai and Malay, because he had to pick them up in order to deal with clients across Southeast Asia. He has an easy and relaxed relationship with languages that enables him to get the job done.
In other words, people like Alice and my uncle are globally competent.
For the globally competent, languages are tools for connection, for teaching and learning, for business, for creation, and for play.
For this group of people, a second or third (or fourth!) language has many real, genuine and flexible connections to our world, and do not simply consist of vocabulary lists and rules of grammar to memorize for exams, and then forget almost immediately.
The Natural Way vs the Rule-Based Way
Learning experts tell us that there are less stressful and much more enjoyable paths to learning languages—paths that lead to the kind of easy and flexible relationships that the globally competent have with languages.
✅ Experience the language in a casual, relaxed, natural way that produces positive feelings about the language;
✅ Take their own time to experiment and make mistakes—and to speak or perform only when they are ready;
✅ Interact with the target language in ways they can easily comprehend (e.g., with multimodal support);
✅ Read extensively and longer texts for pleasure;
✅ Be invited to draw on their linguistic repertoires through “translanguaging”, so that they can express themselves and use the target language, even if not 100% perfect;
✅ Play and create with the language.
Wrong ways—that make learning languages less efficient and more stressful—involve an overemphasis on rules, taking vocabulary words out of context, always correcting mistakes, and pushing kids to perform speaking tasks when they are not ready.
We all know we don’t learn as effectively when we are stressed out.
Creativity & Confidence vs Being Good in Tests
Traditional language classes, with their focus on rules and passing tests, remain the dominant way that kids interact with 2nd languages.
I remember how Chinese textbooks were my only interactions with Chinese throughout elementary school! That severely limited my vocabulary and ability to perceive Chinese outside of the academic context.
For building global competence, creativity and confidence, these often high-stress interactions with the language alone won’t cut it.
The diet of the second language learner needs to include casual, relaxed interactions, extensive reading for pleasure, and the time and space to make mistakes, play and create.
Best Strategies: Getting Your Kids to Read for Pleasure!
👍 Research and recommend a range of fun books for your kids to read. But always have them make the final selection.
👍 In particular, Comic books and graphic novels have been found to support second language learning. Here you can find reviews of comic books and graphic novels in Chinese.
👍 Or go to the library and choose all the books on a particular theme! Check out this list of Chinese storybooks which are “magical”.
👍 Read aloud during bedtime so the language is experienced in the context of warmth and friendliness!
Pleasure > Pain
Making sure that our children have relaxed and casual interactions with their second language has tremendous benefits for the long run.
For myself personally, prioritising my own daughter’s enjoyment of the language has had very positive effects. She can now sing Hokkien songs to her Great-Grandmother, read both English and Chinese novels, write songs in both Mandarin and English, and make the necessary linguistic switches, even switching accents in Mandarin and English, to make connections with the person to whom she is speaking. She is becoming globally competent.
I’m also very happy to report that these kinds of relaxed and friendly interactions have also helped mommies like Jacqueline, who has been able to get her 7-year-old son to move from refusing to speak in Mandarin to laughing over Chinese books, using Chinese words casually, and finding connections between what he’s learning and his everyday life. Read more about Jacqueline’s experience.
You may have had a bad relationship with your second language, or your child may not be getting great scores in their second language tests at the moment, but don’t feel defeated!
Because if you focus on building creativity, confidence and a positive relationship with the language now, your kids will be able to use their full linguistic repertoire when needed, and can handle any new and challenging circumstances for long after they have left school.
The Dim Sum Warriors Club provides interactive livestream story-reading and cartoon drawing sessions that are specially designed by expert educators to engage kids’ bilingual and creative abilities in a casual and relaxed environment.