Saturday, 13 April 2013

"L" is for Language, Which I Love And Am Endlessly Fascinated By...

One of the fascinating things about moving to a new country is the language. Or languages, in the case of Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia. There's the Malay language (Bahasa Malayu) which is native to Brunei, Indonesia and Singapore as well. Malays comprise slightly over half the population. Then there are the Chinese, the second largest population group, who may well speak any or all of Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Malay, English and others. The smallest group here are the Indians, so let's add Hindu, Punjabi, Tamil and any of 17 others to the list.

Don't take my word about it: read about it here. Fortunately for us expats, many people in Malaysia speak excellent English (impressive English!). A very large number speak very passable English. This is one of those places where it's pretty darned easy to come as an English-speaking tourist and get around just fine.

There's a vibrant English writing community, too. Novels, anthologies, and books of poetry written by
Malaysian English language
literature, home-grown!
Malaysian authors and published by Malaysian publishers are to be found on the bookshelves--in English. There are public readings for aspiring writers in several locations regularly and it's sometimes difficult to get a space in one of Sharon Bakar's Word Works English language writing classes. Malaysia has it's own George Town Literary Festival (there's also one in Singapore as well), held in Penang each November. It's a happenin' place!

OK, so what's the catch? For me, the 'catch' has been coming to terms with speaking English whilst, at the same time, not speaking English. Some people use the term "Chinglish" (English influenced by Chinese) to describe it but I find it a broader, more interesting (and sometimes hopeless but always amusing when I look back at it in a later sane moment) situation. And, when you add the cultural context of "timeliness"--as if such existed here--it can be hilarious.

First, the key words you need to know: OK, OK-OK, Can, Can-Can, No-Can, No have, Finish*. I am convinced that, with the addition of some arm-waving and possibly a pencil and scrap of paper in the case of numerical negotiations or the need to exchange phone numbers, much service-related commerce in Malaysia can be completed. OK, so armed with that, let's call for service.

Enter the plumber. My working hypothesis is that, in Malaysia, there are only three possibilities for any appointment:   1) The person will be early;  2) The person will be late; 3) The person will not show up at all. That's it. There are no others.

So. I made an appointment with the plumber, Mr Woo, for one Thursday last year. It wasn't urgent. I settled in to spend the day writing on the Tuesday immediately preceding. A blissful morning and afternoon awaited me. The phone rang.

ME:          "Hello?"
WOO:      "Come now."
ME:          "Why? Have appointment for Thursday."
WOO:      "Thursday no can. Come now."
ME:          "OK-OK, what time?"
WOO:       "Come now." 
ME:           "OK-OK, come now."  

OUTCOME:  Mr Woo arrived on Thursday two hours before the originally scheduled time. All my time waiting for him on Tuesday (informing security, locking the dogs up, peering out the window while I didn't write) was wasted. He made no comment regarding what happened on Tuesday. I am certain that if I'd asked why he hadn't come on Tuesday, he would have said "No can."

Then there's That Literal Thing. Recently I went with two friends to an upscale coffee house, Dr Cafe. I went to order three drinks and three different pastries. "JJ", an American friend, wanted the one lonely blueberry muffin in the display case. It was closest to the class and had a little sign next to it which said "BLUEBERRY MUFFIN RM7" (RM7 is the price).

Here's how it went. (HELP = Counter Help)

HELP:    “Can help you?”
ME:       "Yes, I’d like a blueberry muffin."
HELP:    "Blueberry muffin?"
ME         (pointing): "Yes, blueberry muffin." 
HELP:    "No have."
ME:        (pointing at muffin nearest the front of the display case and tapping on glass) "What’s that? That’s a blueberry muffin right there, with the round blue things on the top."
HELP:    "No have."
ME:        "Really? But what is that muffin right there, with the blue berries in it? (tapping on glass and pointing at sign next to muffin with round blue exposed blueberries)
ME:        "But it's still a BLUEBERRY muffin."

ME:        (biting tongue, smiling, caving in). OK, I’ll have the LOWFATBLUEBERRY muffin. (sigh)

* Finish: A word which means 1) we're out of what you want; 2) we're out of what you want and I have no idea when there will be any more so don't ask; 3) you should have asked me last week; it's too late now, foot; 4) you're too late and I'm not helping you; 5) I don't know what you're asking for so I'm just going to let you know you aren't getting any.


  1. Sounds like you have enough stories for a funny book about language challenges in a foreign country. I love these stories, especially about the fact that the plumber arrived on Thursday anyway.

    Great post as always, Cynthia!


  2. I think the Health Monthers would especially appreciate this one!

  3. Hilarious!!! Put it this have free entertainment and amusement on a regular basis, when its not annoying of course. I'm writing about Chennai, the local language of which is Tamil. Many Malays might have ties here or with Sri Lanka.

    Four Leaf Clover

  4. I love languages too! I remember a lot of people in Singapore using 'la' randomly thrown into their sentences. :)

  5. Ooh, I'm jealous: L is for Language! I almost forgot how much I love language until this A to Z challenge which has forced me to write about topics I might not have otherwise chosen. I do have a category for Language but my L word was Likoma which is, well, also something a bit about language!

    Love that you're in Malaysia! I was there for a month several years ago and it was one of my favorite countries.