Sustainable learning


The Joy of a Polygot : Speaking in multiple languages

I’m delighted to introduce a guest post today, the first on my blog.  My previous colleague Ratna from Malaysia has very kindly accepted my request for an article about the goings-on of her mind when she speaks her three native languages.  I hope you enjoy her insights!  You can also check out her own blog here:

The Joy of a Polygot : Speaking in multiple languages

“To have another language is to possess a second soul”  Charlemagne (742/7 – 814), King of the Franks

So, I’m a polyglot! How did that come about, you may ask?

Well, I used to sit beside a lovely Malaysian-Indian colleague at my previous workplace. We enjoyed each other’s company so much that our laughters of delight constantly filled the staff room. Each time this happened, one of our colleagues, Anthony (who owns this blog, by the way, thanks for the invitation for a blogpost, Anthony!) looked up from his desk, smiled and said “You guys sound so happy” or “It must’ve been a good joke” or “It’s nice to see people being so happy”.

Much later, Anthony told me that it wasn’t so much about the laughter. What really intrigued him was the way we both communicated in 3 different languages simultaneously (the languages being Tamil, Malay, and English). Anthony was (and still is) very curious as to how we managed to do so with such ease, yet produce such spontaneity in the utterances. Hence, here I am, trying to feed his curiosity by analyzing my own speech utterances, in the hope of gaining some insight into how my mind worked and identifying the possible factors that may have influenced my trilingual speech production.

Just a prior disclaimer, though. I am in no means an expert on this subject. I do hope that any misappropriate coinage of linguistic terms is taken with a pinch of salt.

The Inception Of  It All

Anthony termed our ability as “quadlingualism”, a rather grand word. To me, I’d say that our trilinguistic abilities stem from the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual nation that we hail from. These trilinguistic abilities have paved the way to the inception of what I’d love to call as “colloquial trilingualism” or Manglish, as it’s best known to the world. So, what is Manglish? According to Wikipedia, Manglish is an English-based Creole spoken in Malaysia, and largely consists of vocabulary from English, Malay, Tamil, Hokkien, Mandarin and Cantonese (the last three being the varities of the Chinese language spoken in Malaysia).  Interestingly, Manglish in itself, is spoken differently within the various regions of Malaysia with the infusion of each of  the region’s local slang. There is also a variation in pronunciation according to the existing ethnicities in Malaysia. For instance, an Indian and a Chinese would sound quite different when attempting to communicate the same message!

Manglish manages to creep into EVERY conversation spoken by Malaysians, may it be a single word (like the famous suffix ‘lah’) or an entire utterance .We just can’t help it; it’s such an innate part of our individuality as Malaysians. It’s amusing how many Malaysians have ‘split personalities’ where language is concerned; we speak proper English whenever neccesary, yet automatically switch to Manglish, our comfort language, the minute we start winding down!

In case you’re still at loss as to what Manglish is, I believe that the following YouTube clips would succinctly shed some light on this language:

Now, in all honestly, I must say that Manglish would sound like an “absolutely ridiculous and poorly-spoken version of English with a lot of strange words thrown in” to any foreigner visiting Malaysia. In fact, Manglish can sometimes lead to miscommunication between a local and a foreigner! Most foreginers, though, eventually get used to the language.  Some even try mimicking it in the name of fun; We smile, and take it in our stride!

So, which forms of Manglish do I Speak?

The conversations that took place between me and my colleague were actually different varieties of code-switching, a common speech habit among bilinguals, trilinguals and polyglots. Code-switching is alternate switching between languages in the course of a single conversation. In reflecting on the conversations that I’ve had with my colleague, I was able to classify our utterance structures into the following categories:

a) Intersentential switching – Switching between languages outside the sentence or clause.

For example : What time is he coming? Innum angge enna seiraan?

                             (What time is he coming? What’s he doing there?)


b) Intrasentential switching – Switching between languages inside the sentence or clause, where

either one of the form of either one of the languages can be used as the base form. The above

structure is a combination of English and Tamil.

For example : i) Such a madaiyan, he doesn’t even think before speaking!

(Such an idiot/fool/, he doesn’t even think before speaking!

Note : As you can see above, the article ‘a’ is used for the Tamil word “madaiyan” which begins with the alphabet M, and the sentence is based on  the English language’s syntax.

ii) Breakfastku enna saapteengga?

                                (What did you have for breakfast?)

Note: The sentence above is based on the Tamil language’s syntax, with an English word inserted.

    Iii) Apasal dia tak try lagi sekali?

         (Why hasn’t he/she tried again?)

        Note : The sentence above is based on the Malay language’s syntax, with an English word inserted into the sentence.

iv)    That guy real mangkukla!

(That guy’s really foolish!)

Note : Although most of the words are in English, this sentence is a direct translation from the Malay language, which literally means that the syntax  of the above sentence is also of Malay. Also, the word “mangkuk” is a Malay slang. The literal meaning of mangkuk is plate, but the slang denotes foolishness/naiveness.

Although the sentences above may seem atrociously ridiculous, they are in fact, very common strategies employed by bilingual/trilingual/multilingual speakers. In his book How to Teach Speaking, Scott Thornbury explains how second or foreign language speakers of English employ communication strategies to achieve strategic competence in the target language (as demonstrated above). Among the strategies employed include circumlocution, foreignizing a word, word coinage, and language switch (or code switching).

Why do I Combine Languages When Speaking?

Initially, I did not have the slightest idea as to why I did so. The reasons below, though, seem feasible enough to substantiate my actions:

a) Smooth flow of communication

When I combine languages to speak, I feel an ease in communication and the ability to convey the exact message that I intend to. For example, in the course of a conversation with a fellow Malaysian, there are many a times when I find myself searching my mind for a specific word in, say Tamil, but fail to so due to the infrequency of that particular word’s usage. In times like this, I find myself retrieving the synonym of the Tamil word in Malay / English; it definitely ensures a smooth flow in communication!

b) Saves time

When I’m in the midst of explaining something interesting/exciting, getting the right words can sometimes become a barrier. It’s almost like I’ve got the exact picture in my mind, but just not able to find the right words to explain it!  In this case, I find myself switching to another language that has the synonym of the word I’m looking for. A true time saver!

c)   Vibrancy of Communication

Anyone who speaks multiple languages would admit that  the richness of languages is enhanced with the inclusion of slang (as with English too). Slang terms can sometimes be very meaning-specific.  At times, it can even get quite impossible to find words or phrases from another language with exact meanings!  In cases like this, I find myself reaching out for the Malay of Tamil slang word to be inserted into my English utterance. Also, words in slang have stresses placed differently, depending on the way it intends to be used. So, one might feel a lot more satisfied using a slang word from another language than trying to utter the appropriate word in the language that they’re currently speaking.  It just adds on to the vibrancy and satisfaction of having a conversation.

So, there you go! I think I’ve finally understood the reasons I choose to speak the way I do.

Having said that, though, I must confess that Manglish causes a bit of a dilemma for me.  As an ELT educator, I condone this language, deeming the utterances as poor speech habits. I am very particular about the way I speak in class, and have always detested English teachers who spoke Manglish during their lessons. But, as a Malaysian, I do think it’s perfectly fine to embrace Manglish as part of our cultural identity. The problem is, Manglish has fossilized so deeply within the roots of the Malaysian culture that people, generally, have trouble differentiating between this spoken-Creole and proper English. This has become the bane of our nation and is constantly debated upon heatedly by many. There is still much to be done to raise awareness among Malaysians on the importance of differentiating Manglish and English. Sadly, it is not going to be an easy journey.



Less is more

Less is more.  We want our students to learn as much as possible.  So it’s natural that we want to teach them a lot in a lesson.  However, it’s better to teach them a little.  Make sure it is at the appropriate level.  That way, they will learn what we teach.  Then we can teach them more.  We will teach them a lot.  We will achieve our goal.  However, we won’t overwhelm them.  For vocabulary, choose 7 words.  It seems to be a magic number.  Teach them well.  Teach them with useful grammar.  Less is more.

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New post! has very kindly posted my article: “Remembering a forgotten resource – Mother Tongues.”  You can access it with this link if you are interested:

Happy reading!  I’d love to hear any comments you may have from your own experiences in English classes (or other languages for that matter).


2, 4, 6, 7 :(

Thinking is something that we do without, well, thinking.  Sometimes we do it too much and unfortunately sometimes too little.  The same can be true in the EFL classroom.  It is easy to blame students for this short fall.  However, it may be better to point the finger of blame at our educational institutions and curricula.

Recently I taught my beginner students how to spell English numbers from one  to ten.  On their weekly quiz they had a question like this:

1) Write the next word

one, three, five,            .

Answer: seven.

Most of my students wrote six.  I was slightly dismayed.  I thought the pattern of 1, 3, 5, 7 would be easy enough to spot. However, in my class I had taught my students how to say and spell the words, but not how to think and use them in different contexts.  I had neglected to add a critical thinking element to my class.

On one level my ego was tarnished.  On another level I learned a very valuable lesson.

Take your students as you find them.

If your students come from a country where  critical thinking is integrated into their school and/or university curricula, you are very lucky.  More often than not, they do not, or they are still developing these skills.

So…teach them how to think.

For example, if students have been taught to memorise facts or information in a sequence (such as numbers one to ten), you need to teach them how to go beyond this in your class and manipulate their knowledge.  Extend this idea to foreign languages.  Students can learn how to say a sentence and repeat it.  However, if they understand the components of the sentence, they can make their own sentences effectively and derive great pleasure from creating new utterances.

If this happens, you can dance a little jig and pat yourself on the back.  You will have moved on from teaching a list of language items.  You will have taught students how to feel the language and use it in novel contexts.  When students can do so, they will be inspired.  You will be proud.  So, teach them how to think and you will teach them more than a foreign language.  You will allow them to bring it to life.

Teaching students to think in English teaches them to live in English.

This post was inspired by *Tessa Woodward’s “Thinking in the EFL class”.  She offers some great suggestions to add thought-provoking routines into the EFL classroom.  A real gem of a book!

(c) Helbling Languages 2011

* Woodward, T (2011) Thinking in the EFL Class Helbling Languages.

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Real English beginners appear from Central Asia and the Middle East

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Are real  English beginners a diminishing breed?

In parts of the world, such as Europe, I think real beginners are less common, given the prevalence of English language movies, the internet and other contact people have with the English language.  However, it seems that some pockets of the world still have very limited contact with English.

In Malaysia, there is a growing number of students appearing from other Islamic countries who have had very limited English schooling. The central Asian region is a dynamic area and these countries are embracing English more and more. I have been teaching beginner classes at a university in Kuala Lumpur.  Beginner students are appearing from China, Mongolia and the Middle East.  However, more and more, there are students appearing from lesser known countries such as Yemen, Jordan, Palestine to name a few.  Also, students are emerging from the former soviet countries of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

The challenge is exciting, as not only have these students not had much contact with English. They are often unfamiliar with Western styles of education. The education systems of these countries vary dramatically. So in a class of 16 or so students, the challenge for the teacher is not only to convey meaning and encourage communication in English. Additionally, teachers need to teach students how to think conceptually, how to take turns in speaking and learn how to listen to others in a classroom context. This is also not to mention reading and writing skills.  For Russian speakers, these skills are fast to develop. However, for the speakers of Arabic and Chinese, these can be challenging and (understandably) slow to develop.

Access to such students is wonderful for a teacher, as in many cases they are a clean slate upon which language can develop.  However, the challenge is very real to include activities in class which encourage critical thinking, as opposed to language repetition without logically thinking and analysis.

There are still many real beginners in English. They are emerging from countries which previously had little contact with the Western world. However, with globalisation, they are entering the English language classroom.  They are very excited to learn English and it is exciting to have the opportunity to see their progress from first contact to fluency.

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How to help beginner Arabic speakers learn English

In Arabic, as far as my beginners Arabic CDs have so far taken me, there is no difference between the English:



I’m a

In Arabic, they all correspond to /ɑːnə/.  I’m not going to write it in Arabic script because I can’t.

As such, as Arabic speakers grapple with learning English, they are confronted with a constant choice where in Arabic they don’t need to choose.

I currently teach many beginner Arabic speaking students in a multi-lingual classroom.  I have presented the three options (above) from the beginning of the course and it seems that students are assimilating them much faster once the options are pointed out explicitly.  We chant together in class “I, I’m, I’m a” (with emphasis on the shwa) in class and then select the correct one depending on the target language of our class.

Job?  Students choose “I’m a” = /aɪmə/.  You can present the IPA to reinforce it as a language chunk.

Present simple verbs?  Students choose number 1 “I” =  /aɪ/

Adjectives or present continuous?  Students choose I’m

The same technique can work with different subject pronouns.

You                 He                 She

You’re            He’s             She’s

You’re a        He’s a           She’s a

I think in the past we have been tempted to gradually introduce these items so that students don’t get overwhelmed.  I see the usefulness of this opinion.  However, I suggest that students react better to having a choice rather than guessing about options that are hidden from them by coursebooks (the old “not until Unit 5!” chestnut).





Student learning styles and your own!


Did you know that we all have different learning styles?  To be honest, I had no idea.  Or to be more accurate, I knew there were different learning styles, but I expected there were so many different kinds that there wasn’t much point trying to get my head around them.

However, I recently attended a training workshop which helped us teachers work out which learning style suited us.  The session was based on Neil Fleming’s VAK (later expanded to VARK) approach to learning styles.  As such, our session focused on only three different learning styles: Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic.*  We did a survey which led to some statistics (always a little skeptical of such things) which would help us identify our stronger learning styles.  For interest’s sake, I’ll disclose that I was strongly in favour of both Visual and Auditory, whereas Kinaesthetic was almost non-existent.


If you find out how you learn, I think it will help you to better understand how your students learn.  I have noticed a couple of students in my classes who have been having trouble learning English at a beginner level.  One of them is a keen basketball player and an un-keen language learner (it would seem).  The other seems to be constantly distracted, checking messages on a mobile phone and wanting to get up and walk around the room.

I guess this screams “kinaesthetic” learners.  The problem as such may have been more from my preference for visual and auditory activities in class, whereas they needed to get moving and do something!

I learned that I need to include some more kinaesthetic activities in my class to balance the learning preferences amongst my students.  I would suggest taking some time to speak with individual students who seem to be having difficulties.  You may be able to gain some insight into why based on the VAK learning styles.

For more information, check out:

On this website you can  also complete an online questionnaire to find out YOUR learning style.

* – you can spell kinaesthetic with or without “a” which as a visual learner I find a little frustrating.  The “a” is redundant if you ask me and look at the pronunciation /ˌkɪniːsˈθetɪk/.  Hmmm does this suggest that I’m an auditory learner too?