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Wednesday January 23, 2013
ANYONE who speaks more than two languages or dialects is considered bilingual, according to Universiti Malaya linguistics lecturer Associate Professor Dr Kuang Ching Hei.
“Of course, there are some purists who insist that someone must have equal mastery in both languages to be called so, but in reality, one language will usually be more dominant than the other. I go by the loose definition, which is oral ability,” says the author of Linguistic Journey Of A Bilingual Child, where she writes about her son’s experience in acquiring two languages.
Dr Kuang encourages parents to teach their children dialects, which are not documented but passed down orally from generation to generation. Dialect is a regional variety of a language that is a characteristic of a particular group of the language’s speakers.
“A child should be bilingual. We are such a rich country. Our children speak more than two languages, or at least dialects. Children are so versatile. Currently, there is no national research on children and the languages they speak. The Hong Kong Chinese University has a research centre looking at how children become bilingual; the United States has similar studies. When a child learns a language, he doesn’t need to know the technicalities of it.
“Most children learn by association. They learn to associate with what is already in their language system. Take a key. They don’t know what a key is, but they learn to associate it as house keys, car keys, and so on. That’s how they pick up language. The building blocks of language are formed through association. Language is a medium of comunication and a reflection of your identity. Parents should speak to their children in their mother tongue, especially dialects. They will pick up the languages of their environment easily enough in school, such as English or Cantonese. We have to make sure we don’t lose our dialects,” says Dr Kuang.
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