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An American Impressed with the Multilingual Ability of Most Malaysians

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Malaysians’ linguistic abilities continue to amaze me, even after living here for 14 years. When I first moved here, I was confounded constantly, starting with the drive from the airport back to the resort where we were posted in Seremban, Negeri Sembilan. My husband, who had preceded us by six months, introduced our driver, Rajah, to me, our 16-year-old daughter, and 11-year-old son. Frantically racking my brain trying to rememberhow to say, “Nice to meet you” in passable Bahasa, Rajah turned his always radiant smile on us and said in flawless, unaccented English, “It’s my pleasure to meet you, Madame, Mr Naim and Miss Rebecca.”

Non plussed, I replied in English, “Why the same to you .”Naim sat in the front seat during the 45-minute drive home as befitted his status as lowest-ranked on the hierarchical scale and proceeded to grill Rajah as to how he could speak English so well. We had previously lived in Shenzhen, China; Taipei, Taiwan; and Phuket, Thailand, where the majority of locals did not speak English well, if at all. Was Rajah really an American or British expat? Yes, he was really a Malaysian and understood Bahasa. Oh, and Tamil, Cantonese, and Punjabi, too, as well as conversing in Mandarin and Hokkien. Since Naim seemed to be asking all the questions I wanted answers to, I let him continue the inquisition.

“Is your brain as big as my father’s then?” Naim asked. Rajah told him, that no, the GM Sir had a much bigger brain, for sure. Rajah, it turned out, had no college or tertiary education, nor a high school diploma. He told his linguistically challenged audience that he was no different from other Malaysians in that they all spoke several languages.

“But how?” Rebecca asked impatiently as memories of her recent struggles to learn Mandarin and Thai resurfaced, given that she was otherwise a top student. Because, he patiently explained, Malaysians grew up together and all understood and spoke each other’s languages all their lives. And, I was soon to find out, sometimes speaking three or four in one sentence. They were“used to it.”

Well, I wasn’t and still am not. I can speak a passable French, German, and some Lebanese, but not to the extent of being fluent enough to be able to think in them. I know other cultures are like Malaysia’s, such as my husband’s Lebanese one. He was born into a house where two native languages were spoken. When he got to school, he was taught two others. As he grew up, he learned others. When I met him at age 22, he spoke six languages fluently and today eight. And he can think in each of them. I asked him once what language he dreams in, and he said the situation he was dreaming about would determine the language.

I’m often asked by Malaysians if I have mastered Bahasa yet. I respond that I have mastered taxi lingo, about 50 food items, the proper pronunciation of prominent politicians’ names, and general geography terms, but, no, my skills, such as they are, do not extend to a multilingual me.

Well no fear, dear Marybeth, and other similar linguistically challenged Western expats, as I believe I have figured this out. Americans like me, and nationalities such as the Canadians,the British, South Africans, Germans, and Japanese, all live in environments where they hear and are exposed to primarily one language. It is encoded into our brain’s hard wiring, and as we grow older, our brains become less flexible, thus making it thatmuch harder to learn new languages.

Seriously, I know there are genuine scientific studies demonstrating that between the ages of 18 months to six years,children are best equipped to learn languages. My Lebanese nephews grew up speaking only French and Lebanese until they started public school at age five in the US. Within a few weeks they were fluent in English.

Let me speak on behalf of most Americans and other Westerners and say how very impressed we are by people being able to converse effortlessly in two or more languages. And as expats,as I have always counselled my children, when a local Malaysian makes grammar or pronunciation mistakes, or locals speaks pidgin English, Manglish, Chinglish, that their English is still leaps and bounds better than is our Bahasa. When I hear the occasional expat arrogantly mimic the errors in speech made by locals, locals who are already fluent in three languages, I want to ask them, is their Bahasa or Cantonese or Tamil better? I don’t think so.

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Source: The Expat June 2013
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