Tunnel Vision – July 2012

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This post was written by Chad Merchant

Teacher, chef, photographer… the quintessential “jack of all trades, master of none,” The Expat Group’s editor Chad Merchant celebrated his midlife crisis by moving to Malaysia to experience living in a different country. Nearly four years on, he’s still learning new things and feels, increasingly, almost home. You can read more about his adventures (and travails) at Feedback is welcomed and may be sent to [email protected].


I was 20 years old when I moved to Denver, Colorado. I was arriving in the Rocky Mountain region of the US from Alabama, where only two languages were spoken: English and bad English. I had taken three years of Spanish in school, but with virtually no opportunity to use it, whatever proficiency I attained had atrophied badly by the time I moved to a place where I could have actually used it from time to time.

Within a few months of moving to Colorado, I had a new friend over to visit. We had known each other for several weeks, but on this occasion, he made a phone call to his mother, who lived in another part of the city. To my huge surprise, he spoke to her in a fluent stream of Spanish. It was my first time being exposed to true bilingualism, by which I mean there is no translation required. When my friend spoke English, he was also thinking English. On the phone with his mother, he was thinking and speaking Spanish without any intervening translation. I was amazed.

So about two decades later, I found myself in Malaysia of all places, driving along the Karak Highway on my way to the East Coast. I rounded a corner on the twisty highway as it crested the mountains running down the spine of Peninsular Malaysia, and saw a flashing sign: Awas! Terowong di hadapan!

Now really, a word is nothing more than a way to represent something, whether it’s an abstract concept or a fixed, tangible object. When I say the word “table” to you (presuming you speak English), it’s almost like the image of the object instantly crystallizes in your mind. You don’t have to think about it or sort it out.

You simply know what it is because, long ago, you were taught to associate that thing you sat at in your family’s dining room with the collection of letters that make up the word “table.” And so it is with every word in your vocabulary.

So up to that point, I had done alright with Bahasa Melayu, at least when it came to reading things or having extremely remedial-level conversations. I could get my Touch ‘n’ Go card topped up, get RM50 worth of gasoline, or ask for less sugar in my tea – all in Malay. But typically, there had always been that layer of translation in between the thought in my head and the words on my lips. On this occasion, though, it was different.

As soon as I saw the flashing sign, it just clicked. I didn’t have to translate each word in my head, nor did I think in English at all (at least for that instant). The actual things and ideas that those Malay words represented simply popped unimpeded into my head as quickly as they would have had the sign said, “Caution! Tunnel ahead!” It was a breakthrough moment for me, and though I’d never claim any degree of bilingualism, it represented a real turning point in my life as an expat in Malaysia.


For many of us here, one of the principal reasons that living in Malaysia as a foreigner is relatively easy is because of the widespread use (or misuse) of English. I would say that, for most expats, the reason we don’t become conversationally fluent in local languages is, quite simply, because we don’t have to. You can get by very nicely living using only English, particularly in the larger cities.

As a lover of language in general, I always find myself in a bit of awe when I meet people who speak three or four languages. The thing is, though, here in Malaysia, that’s exceedingly common! Most educated Malaysians will speak a bare minimum of two languages, and many will speak three or four. And they’ll use them all in the course of a single conversation, which really fascinates me.

Once I was in an elevator with two local Chinese women and they were excitedly clucking away about shopping matters – all in English, though it wasn’t either of their native tongues. And sure enough, the conversation was interspersed with bits of Cantonese here and there. I asked one of my Chinese friends here about this practice one time, and what she told me was that when she is speaking with one of her local friends in English, and gets to a thought that she either can’t express properly in English, or feels would be better expressed in Mandarin or Cantonese or even Malay,she’ll just switch, sometimes mid-sentence, and then go right back to English. I think this is amazing, and occasionally feel cheated that I grew up in a huge country, isolated by two vast oceans, and like most other Americans, speak only one language fluently. I always try to learn bits and pieces of other languages when I travel, and I figure I’ve gotten my personal Malay lexicon up to about 200-250 words, which isn’t altogether impressive considering how long I’ve been here!

My reason for moving to KL was to experience living in a different culture, so I try to remember that from time to time, and also try to add a few new words to my Malay vocabulary each month. It’s not much, but it does add to the depth of my experience here in Malaysia.

Source: The Expat July 2012
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