Tak­ing pride in our lan­guage


IT wasn’t that long ago when I wrote about how a Chi­nese credit card sales­man ap­proached me in a shop­ping mall, try­ing to sell his wares to me in Man­darin. When I said, “Sorry, I don’t un­der­stand”, his re­sponse was “Oh sir! You are not Malaysian?”

This irked me. We are Malaysians and our na­tional lan­guage is the Malay lan­guage, the use of which I am rel­a­tively pro­fi­cient. The lan­guage I cus­tom­ar­ily speak is English. Look­ing at our con­sti­tu­tion, one can see that Malay is the pri­mary lan­guage of our na­tion, and also from our con­sti­tu­tion, one can see how im­por­tant the English lan­guage is, not to men­tion the in­ter­na­tional im­por­tance of the English lan­guage.

Both lan­guages were taught in school and I went to na­tional schools, not pri­vate or in­ter­na­tional schools. In ad­di­tion, I took “Pupil’s Own Lan­guage”, in my case Man­darin, taught to us in the Can­tonese di­alect. Ob­vi­ously, this made the learn­ing curve for us mixed kids in the class­room quite steep.

But as a Malaysian, I think I fare pretty well lan­guage-wise. This is why the sales­man’s re­ac­tion was some­what of a sur­prise. Pock­ets of Malaysia are like this, for those who don’t be­lieve me. Of course, it’s not of­ten that a Malaysian gasps when I can’t speak any Chi­nese di­alect and ask my friends, “Is he Malaysian?” Of­ten, it is for­eign work­ers.

But the thing is, Malay is not a dif­fi­cult lan­guage to pick up. Does it have gen­der for nouns? No. Does it have con­ju­ga­tion of verbs? Nope. Add one word and it be­comes past tense. Add an­other word and it be­comes fu­ture tense. Add a pre­fix to a verb and it be­comes the pas­sive voice. In ad­di­tion, Malay is not a tonal lan­guage. “Makan” is still “eat” no mat­ter what tone it is said in. Dif­fi­cult? Not at all!

All right, no one is ask­ing us to com­mu­ni­cate with each other in Ba­hasa Puisi or Ba­hasa Klasik. No one speaks that way on the streets. Can’t re­mem­ber the right word? Throw in an English word and hope for the best!

Yet in many places, usu­ally eater­ies, Malay seems to be one of the least spo­ken lan­guages around. I have to make do with point­ing and ges­tur­ing and throw­ing in hope­ful words from ei­ther English or Malay. Some­times no ef­fort is made at all on the part of the “ser­vice provider” to un­der­stand what I am say­ing. It is as if they were com­mu­ni­cat­ing to me, “You don’t speak my lan­guage? Tough, I don’t speak yours!”

You might ask that if I did learn some Man­darin in school, why don’t I use it? Sim­ple. If I speak a bit in Man­darin, then a tor­rent comes back to me and I am left baf­fled. When I then say “I don’t un­der­stand”, whether or not in Man­darin, the speaker ap­pears baf­fled that I can say so much and un­der­stand so much, but not more than that. So best to pre­tend I have no clue at all as to what’s go­ing on.

It is no won­der then that Malay speak­ers might get a lit­tle hos­tile, don’t you think? Malay is af­ter all our na­tional lan­guage. The funny thing is na­tional lan­guages re­main na­tional lan­guages which­ever coun­try one trav­els to. If one is in In­done­sia, one speaks or at least at­tempts to speak In­done­sian. If one is in Spain or Ger­many, one does the same with Span­ish or Ger­man. Have you ever been to Paris? Try go­ing up to the counter at the un­der­ground and say­ing, “One ticket please” and see what kind of ex­pe­ri­ence you will have.

The Malay lan­guage is taught in schools and it isn’t dif­fi­cult to pick up. As with any lan­guage, one just needs to re­mem­ber the vo­cab­u­lary. Why then is it so hard for nonMalay speak­ing Malaysians to make an at­tempt to speak or un­der­stand the lan­guage?

Daniel has a pas­sion for fit­ness and travel. Com­ments: let­ters@the­sundaily.com

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