I used to think that ‘mother tongue’ meant the language of your ethnicity, however I realised (only a few years ago) that really, it is the language you probably first learnt, are most fluent in, and are most comfortable speaking and thinking in. That makes my mother tongue English. However, being Malaysian and growing up there means you’re part of a cultural mix of languages, food, clothes, celebrations, and traditions, and I consider myself bilingual with a couple of other languages at a sort of ‘lower-intermediate’ level.
One of the NaBloPoMo prompts for this month is “Do you speak more than one language? How did you learn the additional languages?” So here we go:

Malaysia was a former British colony, from the 19th Century up to independence in 1957. English was widely spoken, the national newspaper was in English (The Straits Times, presumably modelled upon the Times in Britain), and when my grandparents’ and parents’ generations were at school they were taught in English. My parents and most of my older relatives speak fluent English and Tamil, and use both when speaking to each other. English does seem to be the dominant language in my immediate and extended family however, and most of us, especially the younger generation, would consider ourselves native English speakers.

I went to national (or state) school, where the medium of teaching is the national language, so I also speak fluent Malay. I may not be able to construct the most poetic or flowery sentences in Malay (not that I’m highly poetic in English), but I can certainly put forward a case for water conservation awareness, or road safety awareness…you get an idea of the sort of essays we wrote in school…

Being of Tamil ethnicity, I’ve grown up around the Tamil language, but sadly, I don’t speak Tamil very well, and I don’t really know why. When we were little my brothers and I were sent for Tamil classes, and I leant to read and write Tamil. My spelling isn’t great, but to this day I can still write out the letters, and read Tamil – although a little haltingly (as I read letter-by-letter, rather than ‘recognising words,’ which is how I read English and Malay). But for some reason I never got to grips with the details of grammar and conjugating verbs – I guess at that age I wasn’t very interested in ‘doing learning’ on a Sunday morning…

I never really got in the habit of speaking Tamil; in school I spoke mostly English and Malay with friends. With my cousins, even the ones who do speak Tamil well, we all just seemed to speak to each other in English. My vocabulary isn’t great, but I picked up and retained a fair amount of ‘day-to-day’ and ‘home based’ vocabulary, especially food and ingredient words. This is probably because my parents refer to Indian dishes by their Tamil names, and to ingredients and cooking words by their Tamil and English names pretty equally. So these were always repeated, and I absorbed them from a very young age when I used to help (or get in the way), and have still retained them. My love of food probably has something to do with it as well!

So I can understand what’s being said to me much better than constructing a sentence myself, I can understand bilingual jokes (that my uncles are very good at making), and I can blag my way though exchanges with shopkeepers or waiters, but I’m still not very comfortable with it, for fear of getting it really wrong and being found out – it’s not quite the same as fumbling your way through a foreign language while the native speaker kindly encourages you along! I think my generation suffered a bit of an identity crisis; I believe I speak for more than just myself in recalling that there was a time when we felt it wasn’t cool to speak your ethnic language, and I think we’re regretting it now. I guess I really should make the effort to try and understand Tamil better – perhaps a good book on grammar. I did try the EuroTalk “Talk Now – Tamil” DVD, but I think a beginner’s DVD wasn’t the best approach. I didn’t find it helpful as it was all about basic vocabulary, that I already have, and not much in the way of grammar. I guess I gave up after that, but I think now that I’ve raised this issue with myself I’ll do something about it again.

When I went to university, one of my goals was to learn another language, preferably Italian (I had a thing for all things Italian, who wouldn’t?). One of the reasons I chose Aberdeen was their ‘breadth’ approach to courses, so along with Psychology I did Sociology, and timetabling was such that my third course was Spanish, which I really enjoyed. This time I really wanted to understand the grammar structure, and it was also very interesting to compare that with the other languages I’m familiar with. In that way learning another language as an adult really does better your undertanding of the languages you learnt as a child. I’ve always had a fascination with etymology, but I think it was augmented by the Spanish leassons, and adding a Latin based language to my collection adds to understanding the etymology of English words.

As with any language you need to practice it, and unfortunately I’ve not practised speaking Spanish much since Uni. This year we visited Tenerife, my first Spanish speaking country, and I got to try it out in its natural setting. Again, I was rather afraid of getting it wrong in front of native speakers, but at least this time I was the foreigner, and I think I did pretty well. I could understand signs and notices, understand when I was being spoken to, and ask for things – like “the thing to open a bottle” when I didn’t know the word for corkscrew (sacacorchos). Many of the more tourist-oriented restaurants have menus in several different languages, and I was a tiny bit proud when a couple of times I was given the Spanish menu. I couldn’t have an argument in Spanish (Caitlin Moran’s definition of speaking a language well enough), but I did well with ‘holiday Spanish.’ I guess the difference would be spending a little more time there and trying to get past just restaurant and hotel conversations…

I’d say my Spanish and Tamil are at the same sort of level – for grammar and ability to construct sentences my Spanish is better, while for vocabulary and familiarity with phrases and the language as a whole my Tamil is better – but I’m giving myself more points for Tamil as it’s a whole other script that I can read and write 🙂 And again, I should also invest a bit more in trying to preserve my Spanish at home, even just watching more Spanish movies. Can anyone recommend any good Spanish authors other than Gabriel García Márquez? A good murder mystery, crime drama, funny chick lit even?

So that’s my 2 + 2 languages. I think predominantly in English, but in certain situations the Malay or Tamil words come to me naturally; sometimes when I’m reaching for a word in one language, it comes to me in one of the other languages. Not always helpful, but interesting. When I dream, again it’s mostly in English, but if the dream is in a Malaysian setting then sometimes there might be other languages going around. There’s also a smattering of Cantonese numbers, phrases, food words, and swear words (just some of the things you pick up from other kids at school…), and very basic French from evening classes that Gareth and I took. Most people in Malaysia will have smatterings of various languages on top of their main ones, and although those bits and pieces don’t really count, I think together they all add a richness to one’s understanding of the world. I suppose in all this there’s also Manglish (Malaysian English) which is the colloquial way of speaking English. It includes a slightly different sentence construction, and pulls in Malay, Chinese, and Tamil words, especially the ubiquitous “-lah,” but that’s a whole other story…

2 thoughts on “Languages

  1. Good read. I can say for a fact that my language proficiency is about the same as yours, only replacing Tamil with Cantonese and Mandarin, and Spanish with Japanese, albeit no formal learning.

    • Thanks Nick. So, are you gonna brush up on your Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese too? 🙂 Sometimes when I speak to my Mum I ask her to speak in Tamil, and I struggle along, but with all the “what’s the word for this, and how do you say that” pauses, we gradually find ourselves back in English!

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