Growing up with English
An effective tool for communication
Sunil Asirvatham
Sunil Asirvatham is a horticulturist. He knows all about growing fruits, vegetables and flowers. When he talks to his customers, he is able to share his expertise using simple, clear language that ordinary people understand. He recollects childhood experiences that made learning English easy for him.

Q: What were your earliest memories of learning English?
A: I went to a preschool where everything was in English. The preschool was wonderful. Mrs Rodriguez was our principal as well as the only teacher there. She encouraged us to express ourselves. There was always lots of art with paint and crayons. And, because we went home only around 6:30 in the evening, we also had so much time to play outside.

The best part was that each child had an individual session with Mrs Rodriguez every day. She would sit with us, one by one, and show us bright, colourful cards with the letters of the alphabet and pictures of fruits, insects and other things we liked. She was motherly and made us feel very special.

Q: Were there other teachers who had a big impact on you?
In secondary school at St Patricks, there was one teacher – Mr William Chung – who came a close second to Mrs Rodriguez. My father passed away when I was 15 years old and, maybe, that was why Mr Chung was so nice to my brother and me. He took me under his wing and called me "thambi" ("thambi" means little brother in Tamil).

Mr Chung taught Literature and that was my favourite subject. The text books were full of intriguing stories. I loved Empire of the Sun (by J. G. Ballard). We also had poetry. I'm sure the Literature stories helped me to be stronger in English.

At home, when exams approached, my mother sat with my two brothers and me to make sure we studied. Even if she was upset with our marks, she didn't show it because she wanted us to be happy. She was a very good teacher.

Q: So much learning takes place even when kids are not at school. In those days, what did you do during the holidays?
A: During the holidays, we would stay with an uncle in Ipoh. The most exciting activity was hunting wild boar. Every Sunday, my uncle took us hunting the whole day. For me, the thrill was not the hunting – it was the trees, the tall lalang, the birds and the rest of nature. And, I was a very curious kid. I wanted to know the names of every single plant. I plucked all sorts of leaves, and shoved them into my pockets so that I could find out later what the plants were.

Back in the village, I would show my collection of leaves to an Uncle Krishnan and ask, "What is this? What is that?" He would identify the leaves and tell me about each plant. There was another man, Uncle Idris, who knew the medicinal value of each plant. Uncle Krishnan spoke in Tamil and Uncle Idris used Malay. Because I was so eager to find out about the plants, I had to speak in Tamil and Malay to them.

Q: You picked up three languages very early. How did that happen?
My parents spoke English and Tamil. Both of them were teachers – so they expected us to speak properly at home. My grandparents and my mother always spoke to my brothers and me in Tamil, our language. But, we answered in English. In the end, we learnt to speak both languages.

Although everything at my preschool was in English, I remember a part-time teacher who came to teach us Malay as well. Then, our holidays in Malaysia helped. I had to speak in Malay to people like that Uncle Idris.

I think I also picked up better English pronunciation by watching television shows like David Attenborough's documentaries. I loved those as well as comedies like Mind Your Language and Mork and Mindy.

After school, because I loved plants so much, I studied horticulture in New Zealand. There, knowing English helped me. Now, back in Singapore, I work for a company called SMM Jurong International. Knowing three languages is very useful because some of my customers and workers know Tamil or Malay better than English. But, as an international tool of communication, I feel English is the best.

Learning from Sunil Asirvatham
Mr Asirvatham says that English is the most useful language to know because it is used all over the world. From his childhood stories, we can see what helped him learn the language – encouraging parents, teachers and other adults who let him explore his interest in plants and were willing to patiently answer his questions; a good preschool programme; and even some television programmes.

When we asked Mr Asirvatham what advice he had for you, he said:
  • "Speak proper English all the time. Childhood is the best time to lay the foundation in a language. That is why I feel you should avoid using Singlish."

  • "When you watch TV, pick good programmes. Documentaries are great. If you watch TV shows which have good English, you will also pick up correct pronunciation."

  • "My curiosity about plants played a huge part in my learning new words. Whatever it is that you are most interested in, ask lots of questions about it. Not only will you gain knowledge, you will also absorb many new words that way."


The series is brought to you by What's Up in partnership with the Speak Good English Movement of Singapore.