Learning > Inspiration

Curious about things



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To 81-year-old Madam Amta Taiyeb Mama, learning about things, learning from others, and teaching others are as natural as breathing. In fact, she would even go so far as to say that learning is as essential as breathing!


Learning Journey Markers


One of Amta’s earliest memories was learning the Arabic language. It frustrated the little Amta that she could not understand the meaning of the words. This sowed in her a seed of interest about the language, a seed that was to grow into a lifelong passion and commitment.


Meanwhile, as a schoolgirl, she had a tutor who could speak both Hindi (the national language of India where Amta lived) as well as Urdu. She requested her tutor to teach her both languages. French was a compulsory language in secondary school, so that was another language that Amta picked up.


The adult years were packed with family responsibilities. Amta followed her husband overseas for his work and busied herself caring for her two sons. Language learning took a backseat. Instead, Amta discovered a new thing – learning how to impart and teach her children life values.


“I taught them honesty, self-discipline and care for others. For example, if you see something on the floor and you pocket it, that’s stealing. This may be a small thing, and the child may be very young; but he must be taught. At gatherings, I taught my sons to sit quietly and think for the people around them. They didn’t bring toys or books, but they learned to sit quietly.”


Amta’s sons grew up well. Her elder son, Saifuddin, is married with two sons and now a doctor in USA, while Ebrahim, her younger son, married with two daughters, is a chemical engineer in Singapore.


Not one to be idle, Amta eagerly picked up language learning again. Around 2007, when she stayed with Saifuddin in USA, she picked up Arabic lessons on radio and from books. Then came the age of computers, smartphones and tablets – technology that was alien to Amta! But she was not deterred.


“I found a typing tutor app on computer, so I learned how to type on the computer. Then I took an online university course on Arabic. It was accompanied by a book, which I needed to order online; my son taught me how to order the book. I wrote to the author of the book that I was 73 years old and I was taking his course. He was amazed but I replied that age is no barrier, if one puts her mind to learning.”


“Nowadays, I take all my language lessons on the iPad. It is more convenient.”


Coming back to Singapore, where her younger son Ebrahim resides, Amta was fascinated by the melting pot of races and languages here. She befriended Malay women. Listening to their language, she realised that there were similarities between the Malay and the Arabic languages as some Malay words had been adopted from the Arabic language.


“In the market, I liked to ask the children, ‘Who wants to be my teacher?’ They would cluster around eagerly to teach me the Malay names of vegetables, flowers and other products.”


Since she is surrounded by Chinese, Amta began to think about learning Mandarin. This language is a far cry from her native Hindi and English but, buoyed by her previous successes, Amta gave it a try.


“I was particularly inspired by our founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I heard how he would listen to Mandarin audio recordings every day to improve his Mandarin. Up to the last, before he passed away, he was still learning the language.”


“I’m just starting to learn Mandarin. It helps that I am surrounded by Chinese people. I listen to their conversations. On the online language sites, I hear the pronunciations and note the phonetic sounds in my own language to help me remember. There are many sites on the Internet teaching Mandarin.” 


Learning languages is not like taking a vaccination. One cannot learn it once and expect to remember for life. Amta has to regularly revise what she has learned so that she would not forget the languages. As a student of six languages – English, French, Hindi, Arabic, Malay and Mandarin – she is kept pretty busy!


The upside of language-learning in her eighties is that Amta feels her memory is better than most people her age. She is also able to converse lucidly and wittily with people from different walks of life. 


Inspired to Teach 


Amta feels so fortunate and blessed about her opportunities to learn that she desires to share her bounty with others. She teaches children the Arabic language and gives them the English translations of their prayers. When four Malaysian families expressed interest in the Arabic language, she even learned to take public transport into Johor Bahru so that she could impart the language to them.


Besides teaching language, Amta has been challenged to teach some of her other skills, and to a totally different age group – her peers. “Council for Third Age approached me and asked if I would volunteer to teach crochet in the Sandbox classes.” Sandbox classes are initiated by senior volunteers who design their own curriculum. Amta’s childhood was filled with rich moments when her mother taught her crochet, knitting, cross-stitch, macramé, and all kinds of needlework. Again, out of gratitude for what she has been blessed with, Amta said ‘Yes’.


She taught a class with about seven people ranging from 50 to 70 years old. From the beginning, she would hear words like: “I’m old, I can’t remember the steps,” and “I’m too old to learn new tricks.”


“Children and seniors are so different,” Amta said. “Children’s minds are lively, they learn fast. They like competition, so it’s very easy to challenge them to learn something new. Old people, on the other hand, give up easily. This is because they think that, at their age, they cannot learn. I tell them to drop the ‘not’. I tell them to say “I can learn; I can do.”


“So, I hold their hands when teaching them crochet. For a start, I teach them ‘easy task’, such as crochet square that can be folded into a tissue packet cover, a simple rectangular bag or a purse. If they forget, I show them again. Above all, I myself must not be impatient. I cannot expect overnight success. I can’t expect everyone to learn at the same rate. If I get angry, my group wouldn’t be able to learn.”


After the month-long course, some of the seniors thirsted for more. Though the facilities were no longer available, two women, together with Amta, were so committed that they camped out on the seats along a common corridor in a community club, and continued their lessons. In the process, friendships and bonds were forged.


Amta also teaches her two granddaughters needlework. As she works on projects alongside her grandchildren, Amta shares stories.


“As the world we live in has changed, so have our children. I don’t force my grandchildren to follow me. However, if I had not told them stories about their parents and their grandparents, they wouldn’t have known where they came from. As I narrate to them stories, I also touch on goodness, manners and values. The learning is mutual. I teach them to knit, they teach me how to operate the computer. We bond over these little interactions,” Amta observed as she proudly showed us the pillowcase she and her granddaughters made together.


This process of sharing the past has another valuable benefit for Amta; it improves her memory and keeps her mind nimble.




Like all people who have lived a long life, Amta has had her fair share of crises and setbacks. One of the most distressing times was the period after she lost her husband. “It was 1990. My husband passed away at a relatively young age . Suddenly, I was completely lost. I felt that everything was gone. My two sons were already grown. Saifudeen was married and staying in USA; Ebrahim was an independent working man in Singapore. I thought to myself: ‘I’m not needed anymore!’”


“I felt completely immobilised and didn't know how to go on living.”


Thankfully, Amta had the encouragement of her sons and close friends.


“My sons ‘forced’ me to do things – like take a train by myself to visit them. I said ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ Slowly, I realised that these were all things I could do before. It led me to the realisation that if I didn’t pick up where I had left off, I would never be able to do it. So, I pushed myself to become independent.”


“My husband once told me, ‘It’s okay if I die before you. You are strong; you can look after the children after I’m gone.’ Remembering his words, I told myself that since my first grandchild was coming, I wanted to be there for him. I cannot give up on life. I want to bond with and teach my grandchildren, just like I did with my children.”


Amta remembered her love for learning. She set herself small learning goals and slowly resumed her life.  Now, she exercises with yoga every morning. She takes walks and her language lessons, and she stays closely involved in her four grandchildren’s lives.


Being Happy


Nowadays, Amta is at peace with herself and with the world. She believes in the importance of emotional wellness, “God has sent us to this world to be happy. He gave us a brain so that we can do the things that He wants us to do. So, we should not sit around and wait for death to come claim us. If you are happy inside you, your family can be happy. Then they make the people around them happy. And the effect goes on. Think of it! One person can make so many people happy. But it only happens if we determine to be happy and contented inside.”


As family and relationships are important to Amta, she feels that emotional wellness and social wellness are very connected. She does not fret about relationships that are not perfect. “One time, a friend stopped talking to me. I knew something was wrong, but if she was not willing to talk about it, I just had to let it be. Pursuing the matter would have led to arguments and unhappiness. Then her in-law visited from Pakistan and invited me to their house for a meal. I hesitated; but in the end I went. We ate, we talked, and then we just picked up the friendship again. It was just a misunderstanding.”


“As we mature, if we are offended, we need to manage our emotions and learn to forgive. And if a situation is beyond our control, we have to learn to let go.”


Be Positive and Proactive


Whether it is mental, emotional or any other aspect of the seven wellness dimensions, Amta recommends that people adopt positive thinking. Positive thinking will impact a person’s total wellbeing.


“We can still look forward to fulfilling our dreams even as we age. Yes, we need to look forward to good things. Achieve something that you’ve always wanted to do. Your mind will be working on how to go about achieving your goal, and then you wouldn’t be focusing on your age. If a person is too ill to leave the house, even then, she can think about something that is useful or can make herself happy.”


“I watch documentaries about people. I am constantly amazed by their achievements. For example, I viewed a clip about a 90-year-old person planting pineapples. How inspirational for seniors! I am constantly learning, constantly adapting what I’ve learned to make it useful for me.”


“Never say ‘I’m tired, I can’t do it,’ and especially not ‘I’m too old, I can’t learn’. Get rid of such negative thinking! Role model for your family and friends that age is no barrier to learning and contributing. Then their families and friends will also be influenced and, thus, more and more people will adopt such positive thinking.”


To the younger folks, Amta implores, “Believe you can age well. Start preparing today. One key aspect is to set time to read and think about things. When you do that, you will cultivate a strong sense of ethical mind – to know what is right and wrong. Then take courage and do what is right based on your conviction. You’ll find life meaning when you live with convictions.”


Amta is a living testimony of what positive thinking can do to a person. She is energetic and focused when she interacts with people. Her face is wreathed in smiles and she reaches out to warmly connect with her company with little touches on the arms and shoulders. People conversing with her become infected by her inspirational words and energy. It is hard to remember that Amta is 81-years-old, but when her age is recalled, it inspires her friends and acquaintances to say, “If Amta can do it, I can do it too.”


“Age is just a number. Your whole being and your potential to do new things should be not be dictated by age. When you tell yourself, ‘I can do it’, somehow you’ll find new strength and purpose to live each new day well. Believe you can!” Amta urges.


Source: The Better Me - Third Ager and Loving It!

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