Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Reading at three in a multilingual society

Jia Yi Chee is a three year-old girl born in January, 2010. She is the youngest growing up with three elder brothers. Literally speaking, she comes from a working class as both her parents are working full time, although her mother drives Jia Yi to school before work every morning. After the domestic helper left the family, Sheena, Jia Yi’s mother chose to put her daughter on a full day child care system. Currently, Jia Yi attends a multilingual childcare facility six days per week in the multilingual Pekan Nenas, a town in the state of Johor, south of the Peninsular Malaysia.

                                                                 Jia Yi (posing for iPhone)

Among other things, Jia Yi has received books and a few sets of mono-word card after six months attending the childcare facility. In between dinner and breakfast, Jia Yi watches a lot of English and Mandarin cartoons on television. Television, once-called the idiot-box, is a surrogate baby-sitter.  Despite her ritual television viewing, Jia Yi enjoys reading. Her reading stimulations are the word cards, which display words in English, Malay and Mandarin that are arranged in random order. The following are her progressive reading outcomes based on selected word cards as her mental stimulants:

Reading stimulants
Jia Yi’s reading output
bantal (pillow in Malay)
*tóng > xué (learn in Mandarin)
scissor [sic]
(female in Mandarin)
luka (scar in Malay)
eyes [sic]
*mouth > I don’t know (in Mandarin) > towel (upon correction)
saya, wo, I (upon correction)
Seluar (pants)
*selamat > *beautiful (with a smile) > seluar (upon correction)
kasut (shoes in Malay)
Kawan (friend)
*friend, *pen yu > kawan (upon correction)
baju (shirt in Malay)

ba ba (wrong tone in Standard Mandarin; correct colloquially)
*Fail > *fail (with a smile) > feel (upon correction)
kai (open in Mandarin)
xin (heart in Mandarin)
Perempuan (women in Malay)
saya (I in Malay)

Table 1: A three year-old’s reading output in a multilingual society

                                                Jia Yi's favourite reading area (in front of the TV)

Initially, prior to the outcomes in Table 1, Jia Yi used to read in phrases: “I love you” for the word love, “good morning” for the word morning, for the mono-syllable word mother in Mandarin. Jia Yi has eventually corrected her reading output by tailoring it to a word-by-word reading pattern. This seems more like a reading detour if we believe that language development is not a word-based transformation.  Depending on one’s preference, one may look at formulaic language as part of psycholinguistic development (Alison Wray), emergentism (William O'Grady), nonlineal parallel processing as a state of mind (cf. Naomi Goldblum, among others), form-function construction as the cognitive process for language (Adele Goldberg), or core syntactic properties shared by human languages (Noam Chomsky) as our reference point(s).
The reading outputs contained in Table 1 were observed and recorded by the blogger who held the word card to Jia Yi’s face. The blogger said yes/good if Jia Yi has read correctly, nope if she has read wrongly, and offered the ‘accurate’ pronunciation if she has read the word on the card wrong for twice.
                                               Jia Yi before watching a movie on a Friday evening
What is interesting is that Jia Yi has recurrent difficulties with verb-to-be such as /are/ in a different observation and personal pronoun /I/ compared to nouns such as /scissors/. She uses any of the three languages as a basis of her reading knowledge and attempts to correct herself in two other languages. Jia Yi mimics the pronunciation of a word in a third language when she receives a correction in a third language.
Based on the simple reading interaction with Jia Yi, there are four questions that this blog post would like to raise as its concluding remarks. Firstly, is word-for-word the right way to adopt in teaching reading to preschools? Secondly, do the children growing up reading in a multilingual setting require different sets of learning materials compared to the children growing up reading and learning in monolingual setting? Thirdly, should language learning begin with one language per each contact time in a multilingual setting, if not across all the learning settings? Lastly, do the language educators and policy planners understand the difference between children coordinating multilingual stimulations and children receiving monolingual stimulations well enough when they manage language acquisition in general and plan reading practice in particular?

Jyh Wee Sew

Centre for Language Studies

Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences

National University of Singapore

1 comment:

Jyh Sew said...

Jia Yi has received another set of word card. The words include rectangle, triangle, square in three languages.

The Malay ones are especially lengthy, e.g. segi empat tepat (rectangle), although she manages to read all with visual cues drawn next to the specific words.

This suggests that reading is very much a mimicry in Jia Yi's case as it is too early for her to see a difference between a square and rectangle, especially in Malay, which is segi empat sama vs. segi empat tepat.