Make speaking a language a space to celebrate mistakes and triumphs

Make speaking a language a space to celebrate mistakes and triumphs

Opinions on topical issues from thought leaders, columnists and editors.

By Dr Janice Lo Yueh Yea

Every parent desires his or her child to be a good communicator of a language who can easily interact with people from all over the world, both in formal and informal settings. Speaking a language in an environment where mistakes and triumphs are celebrated is one way to prepare them up for success.

The question is, what should parents look for in their children’s speaking abilities to achieve this? With our society’s emphasis on correctness, parents frequently, either consciously or unintentionally, tell their children that they have made a mistake. Any form of correction immediately demotivates.

Mistakes may occur as a result of learning English grammar rules, or there may be errors in pronunciation. When children hear an adult correctly repeat the same piece of language, they will self-correct in their own time.

The single most important factor that parents should consider is their children’s attitude towards English. There are people out there who have a very low level of English and can express their thoughts in that language.

Two striking parallels

As such, today I would like to share with you what makes people with a low level of English so unique? How do they manage it? Second, why is this so important not only to you, but also to your children, your community, and Malaysia’s future?

First, what is the difference? To answer that question, I am going to share with you an experience of a child learning to play badminton during which I began to notice two striking parallels between children’s attitude or thinking about badminton and fellow Malaysian’s attitude as well as thinking about English.

The child seemed to dread going to the badminton hall because badminton was all about not making a mistake. Like many other beginners, their success was measured by how many times he or she hits the shuttlecock downwards towards the opponents’ forecourt, aiming for it to go just over the net.

At the same time, I noticed that many Malaysians are hesitant to engage in English conversations. They believe they would be judged based on how many mistakes they make and whether or not they mess up.

The second parallel I noticed had to do with self- image. What does a good badminton player look like for a child? We’ve all heard the expression “hit the shuttlecocks”. Similarly, many Malaysians have preconceived notions about how proper English and one’s English should sound.

They also feel like a child who has just started playing badminton – just a bad badminton player; or a child who has just begun to speak English – a bad English speaker. The key here is, when we speak, we should avoid focusing on ourselves. Concentrate on the other person and the desired outcome.

Can you envision the next generation of Malaysians, all of whom are fluent in English at any level? Let us remember that English today is more than just a skill to be mastered. English is a tool for social connection and global awareness that belongs to all of us.


Dr Janice Lo Yueh Yea is Senior Lecturer of Language & Literacy Education at the Faculty of Education, Universiti Malaya.

(The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of BERNAMA)

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