Tue, Dec 01, 2009
The Straits Times
Not just genes, age or environment
By Tan Dawn Wei

So you can't tell the Mandarin-speaking hawker at your neighbourhood coffee shop that you want wonton noodles with extra chilli, without lapsing into English.

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Whether you are a victim of this country's contentious bilingual education policy or not, take heart that it probably isn't because you are stupid.

Just as some people are good at mathematics and others at painting, those with a flair for languages may have it in their genes too.

But there is truth in the saying 'start them young'. Studies have shown that children have the greatest ability to pick up multiple languages with native proficiency.

Some researchers have also argued that if a person doesn't learn a new language before his teenage years, he is unlikely to master it.

National University of Singapore's (NUS) Dr Tomasina Oh, who studies language acquisition, said that while researchers have not been unanimous in their views on what determines how well a person learns a second or subsequent language, it comes down to more than one factor.

'Obviously, being exposed to and using the language as much as possible is a good thing. Which factors encourage the learning of subsequent languages may depend on the age you are talking about,' she said.

Young children learn first and second languages simultaneously with ease, for instance. But that does not mean adults are a lost cause when it comes to taking on a new language.

Theories about a 'critical period' for acquiring languages have been controversial, and scientists have pointed out that while it may get harder with age, there is no sharp decline in the performance of language acquisition when one passes this magical pre-teen age bracket.

Dr T.H. Wong, 36, is a relatively late bloomer, and she does not consider herself gifted in this department either.

The Singaporean surgeon knows eight languages - English, Chinese and French acquired in classes while in Raffles Girls' School; Spanish and Arabic in Cambridge University; and Portuguese and Nepali on the job while doing volunteer medical work in Brazil and Nepal. She also took one-on-one Malay lessons.

'I think motivation comes first - it means a lot to me to be able to understand what people want to say,' she said, when asked to pin down why some people struggle with two languages and others can handle five or more.

Environment comes a close second, she said.

It is a given that one needs to be immersed and engaged in a language in order to be suitably proficient in it.

But there is, again, no consensus over whether languages are better learnt simultaneously or one at a time.

Many studies on simultaneous bilinguals and successive bilinguals in the United States and Europe have yielded mixed results.

'It also depends on how their language skills are measured,' said Dr Wang Xin, a linguist at NUS, of these studies.

'However, it looks like bilinguals' eventual linguistic skills are largely dependent on the social environment and how much they actually use the languages,' she said.

So in Singapore's case, where English is the dominant language, learning another one well is already a challenge.

'However, if learners are guided by good principles with the right attitude, positive outcomes are possible even in a one-language dominant environment,' said Dr Wang.

Why do you think some people can speak many languages while others can cope with only one? Send your comments to suntimes@sph.com.sg

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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