Learning to Speak Bahasa Melayu

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So there I was, happily perched on my plastic stool at my favourite neighbourhood mamak, ready to tuck into some late-night grub with my friends. The little guy came over to take our orders, so when my turn came, I triumphantly delivered my order: “Satu roti telur dan bawang… dan minum, teh halia ais, kurang manis.” Reasonably good Malay, right? (The rough English translation: “One egg-and-onion roti (flatbread)… and to drink, iced ginger tea, easy on the sugar.”) The guy looked at me like I had two heads. A couple of seconds passed in silence, and I looked at one of my friends with this “good grief” expression on my face and he took the cue and repeated my order to the order-taker. Verbatim! Naturally, the guy understood instantly and perfectly and trotted off, and I just sat there with my mouth hanging open.

My friend said the exact same thing I said, so why was he understood while I wasn’t? I mean, it’s not like we’re speaking Thai or Chinese where subtle inflections – such as the rising and falling of the voice – can alter the meaning of the word. This was Malay, with its Roman alphabet, basic grammar, and straightforward pronunciation. I was completely aghast. After all, I listen to how many accents and rubbishy versions of English every day? And I understand them all. (Well, most of the time.) If someone speaks to me in English, I actually understand the words, regardless of the accent.

Admittedly, there was one memorable time, however, where I utterly failed to understand something being said to me in English, and it was in, of all places, England. I was in a little fish and chips place in East London and ordered my meal, and the rough-looking guy behind the counter joylessly muttered something to me as he was preparing the fish. I didn’t quite catch what he said, so I said, “Sorry, what was that?” He repeated whatever he said, and it was just as unintelligible. I squinted my eyes and asked again, “What? I don’t understand.” At this point, he went to pieces and practically shouted, “D’ya speak bloody English, mate?!” Obviously I do, I told him, but just had no idea what he was saying. As it turned out, he was asking me if I wanted it “wrapped to take away.” We don’t use this particular phrase in the US (there, you’d be asked, “Is that for here or to go?”), and he was speaking so fast and with such a thick Cockney accent, I truly had no clue what he was asking me.

So I suppose there’s some basis for understanding why my attempts at speaking Malay are met with blank expressions and silence. But come on… humour me. At least I’m trying!

In my travels to other countries, when I boldly make the effort to speak in the local language, it’s nearly always a train wreck of grammar and pronunciation. I admit it… foreign languages are just not my thing, as much as I’d love them to be. I’m always in awe of those who handily speak multiple languages, or those who have the gift of learning new languages, even at a conversational level, easily. I muddle along, but I do try. And in those countries, the reaction I typically get is one of appreciation, in a way. Like they’re pleased that I am even making the effort, rather than just expecting them to speak my language (like so many tourists do, particularly us Americans). Unfortunately, however, I only occasionally get that reaction or feel that appreciation in Malaysia.

The responses I get range from bemusement to stoned silence to actual laughter. This, naturally, does not inspire me to keep trying, nor to improve my speaking skills in Malay. It certainly doesn’t fill me with a great swell of confidence, either!

That’s not to say it’s like this every time… it’s not. Some locals are truly impressed that a mat salleh has bothered to learn any Malay at all. And I do love learning new words. If nothing else, it adds depth to my experience here in Malaysia, and always gives me a tiny flush of pride when I can read a sign in Malay. Honestly, for me, the overall benefits of increasing my Malay vocabulary far outweigh the occasional embarrassment or ineffectiveness when I try to actually use it. It’s occasionally helpful, too, and of course, for us expats, just lends a bit of a sense of assimilation and belonging when
we can at least marginally function in the local language.

Just be sure to take along a Malay-to-Malay interpreter when you visit your neighbourhood mamak.

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