language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about. – benjamin lee whorf

last night, i met someone who have decided to raise her seven months old baby completely monolingual. when i asked her if anyone was talking to the baby in the malay language, she replied that she wants the child to have a complete mastery of the english language and believes that introducing another language to the baby will affect the perfection of her english.

she cites examples of her friends’ children, who grow up multilingual but a ‘master of none.’ in her opinion, people who know more than one language only grasp a ‘smattering’ of the languages and are unable to perfect any. and she’s not just talking about spoken language – she gives me that look – also written.

english is the most important language, she tells me, and that she will only allow the kid to be exposed to another language when she can speak and write well in english.

i began to her that a baby is actually able to handle more than one language – at which point she cuts me off saying that it will confuse the child and the child will not be able to concentrate in mastering english. look at her husband, she tells me. he has malay, english and a little bit of chinese, but struggles with each one – according to her. unlike her – according to her – where she corrects his english.

people nowadays – she looks straight at me – some can manage to speak english well, but their writing is out!

i’m a writer, i tell her.

hmph.

oh-kay. but i am also a scholar of linguistics – i told her – and plenty of scientific research all point to the super absorbtion abilities of a child’s brain, especially its language faculties.

*she gets up* and you are qualified to claim all of this hah? where did you learn all of this?!

i got a masters in linguistics.

and people did studies on this kind of subjects? on babies like this? *she points at her drooling baby*

yes.

*she walks over and picks up her baby* well, she is my daughter, not yours!

*she walks away*

i was dumbfounded. and even disheartened, believe it or not. languages and linguistics is something i am so passionate about and i have spent over ten years of my life studying its science. child language acquisition – children don’t learn language, see? they acquire language (how awesome is that!) – is something every first year general linguistics students learns. things like chomsky’s universal grammar has been the subject of debates in any elementary linguistics classroom.

the very idea of multilingualism is what gave birth to things such as language relativity and linguistic determinism – ideas that has allowed us to study about how the human brain works. and further from that – sociolinguistics, structuralism etc – ideas that shows us how language shapes cultural and societal perceptions. oh my dear god in heaven – this has been my love for the past decade! studying and researching how language penetrates the most mundane facades of our lives. how the miracle of multilingualism has created layers in our imagined society, influencing our worldviews, histories, ambitions and dreams.

sigh.

it disheartens me when people brush the science – and art, damn, i have not even started on the art of language yet ni – of linguistics aside. the idea that a child’s brain will be confused when more than one language is introduced has been dispelled over a hundred years ago. from my point of view, intentionally depriving a child from exposure to a second language equals abuse to me. my god, the brain of a baby is such a wonderful thing! oh for the brain of a baby – i would expose myself to ten languages if i had such a brain!

language is not just a means for expression, see. it is a means for perception. and this is what ultimately, ultimately fascinates me. to gain a language is to gain an insight and an understanding of a whole different way of viewing the world.

and yes, english is an important language. but english is not the most important language. every linguistics student gets this drilled into their cranium in their first year. all languages are equal. some are more sophisticated. but none are inferior. each language fulfills the expressive needs of their respective cultures and that makes it important enough.

i can honestly go on and on about this. i really can. which is why it peeves me when people disregard linguistics like that.

you’re right. she’s not my daughter. she’s yours. and with trained authority, i am so sorry for her.

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