Growing up with English
Painting word pictures in our heads
Ms Dilawala
Lawyer Shamim Dhilawala shares childhood experiences that led to her strong command of the English language.

Q: What are your earliest memories of learning English?
As my parents were first-generation immigrants from Gujerat in India, neither spoke English when they arrived in Singapore. My father came ten years before my mother, and he picked up some English when he got here. My mother picked up Malay when she went marketing. Our family lived in a Gujerati neighbourhood in Geylang. We spoke Gujerati at home as well as with all our neighbours.

I started learning English when I went to kindergarten, probably when I was five or six years old. The teacher was Indian but she spoke very good English. That was my first exposure to the language. At home, the adults in our neighbourhood generally spoke Gujerati, but my friends and I started talking to one another in English once we started school.

At around the same time, television came to Singapore. Only one of our neighbours had a TV set and so, all of us congregated there to watch TV every evening. Unlike nowadays, there were only two or three programmes and the local news. I remember I loved Hawaii 5-O! Watching those programmes was the other way I learnt English.

Q: Now, you write and speak English with ease. How did your command of English become so strong?
I went to Haig Girls' School, and later to Tanjong Katong Girls School. The principals of the two schools were sisters, both named Miss Bandara! The Bandara sisters were very proper, and they expected all of us to speak good English at all times. Also, unlike in kindergarten, primary school was more multiracial and we had to speak in English to one another to be understood.

I soon became a voracious reader. I read everything I could find, and I remember going to the National Library regularly. It was then the only library in Singapore. I read all the Enid Blyton books, the Nancy Drew series and Hardy Boys books before going on to the classics. Thomas Hardy was my favourite.

In those days, we didn't have the visuals that we have today. So books were the primary source of information we had about different parts of the world. Authors had to use words to vividly describe a scene or a place.

Nowadays, when I read about a place, I can easily google that place and get information, pictures and even videos to tell me what it is like. For instance, when I was reading something about Armenia yesterday, I immediately used my smartphone to go online and see places in Armenia. In a way, it is a pity that we have immediate access to visuals. When you can't see the scenes, you have to imagine them. I think using your imagination may be better for developing language than having visuals at our fingertips.

Q: When you were in kindergarten, watching TV helped you pick up English. Looking back now, why are you saying that reading books is better than watching TV?
TV programmes will not give you the same experience as reading. TV will not give you the rich vocabulary that good storybooks do. On TV, people use fewer words because they try to keep everything simple. Good books expose you to so many more words, all in full sentences, and with correct grammar all the time. When you read a lot, it all falls into place in your mind, and then the language flows from you. That is how it was for me.

Also, when you are reading, you see the sentences in context. You have to picture everything in your mind, and that makes you pay closer attention to the words being used to describe scenes. When you watch TV, everything is there right in front of you. Your mind processes the two media very differently. Watching TV is a very passive action while reading is an active action that keeps your brain engaged.

I can see the difference in children and even young adults these days. Lack of reading takes away a lot from the richness of your language.

Q: You were in the pure science stream later in secondary school. Did it help to be strong in English?
Yes, being able to write well was important even for my Physics, Chemistry and Biology classes. We had to write essay answers for these subjects as well. In secondary school, I loved the sciences and wanted to be an engineer. I changed my mind later, and went into law instead.

Good writing and speaking skills are even more essential to me as a lawyer. These days, lawyers try to draft everything in very simple English so that clients can understand what they read. But even then, a lawyer's vocabulary must be strong enough to say exactly what needs to be said.

Q: Your work must keep you very busy. Do you still find enough time to read for pleasure?
Yes, I try and read whenever I can. Sometimes, I even read several books at one time to stay engaged. I also have a Kindle that I find very easy to bring with me when I travel. I travel a fair bit for my work and for leisure. It is wonderful to see all the places I previously only read about. The most magnificent example is when I first saw the Great Pyramids of Egypt. They took my breath away. I also remember the first time I saw a field of daffodils in the Lake District that William Wordsworth's poem describes - it brought tears to my eyes.

Learning from Shamim Dhilawala
If you were to meet Ms Dhilawala today, you wouldn't guess that English was not spoken at home when she was a child. Yet, as she put it, the language now flows from her very naturally. Because she is the vice-president of her firm, the younger lawyers look to her for guidance when they draft important statements. You, too, can benefit from her vast experience but in a different way. You can try doing what worked for her as a child.

Emulate good speakers by trying to speak as well as they do. As a little girl, Shamim emulated her kindergarten teacher and, later, her school principals. They were good role models for her.

Read for pleasure. "Read the classics," adds Ms Dhilawala. "The authors in those days were great story tellers. They had vivid imaginations and brought stories to life using words. When a movie is adapted from a book, read the book first before you go and see the movie, and you will have a very different experience."


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