Learning a Language (Sort of)

When I was a kid and alone eating my breakfast, I would pass the time reading the back of my cereal box. Like any good paperback, Koko Krunch’s back cover was as engaging as any Nancy Drew’s – with a particular difference of course – it had twice the same content but in 2 different languages.

The top part was English and the bottom in a language I did not know yet then. I would pass my time trying to match the English words to the foreign language and to this day, I would remember Tahukah Anda? as the one in the same font and same position as Did You Know?

Years later, life has found me in Kuala Lumpur and suddenly I am transported back to that curious question I had when I was young. Turns out that the alien language Koko Krunch was translated in was this country’s national language, Bahasa Malaysia.

I’m a big fan of the universe’ sense of humour, and in this simple realisation it did not disappoint. It was telling me it’s time to pick up where I left off from my cereal box.

It was fascinating then and it was fascinating now.

I realised over time that whether I am travelling to a new city for the long weekend or studying there a few months or working there for more than a year, the beginnings of grasping a language is always the same.

Take my slow but natural progress in my second home’s native language, for example:

First, you find that there are words that’s more in your face than the standard Selamat Pagi and Terima Kasih that any polite Malaysian would excitedly teach a foreigner – these are words such as tolak and tarik which you see printed near the door handle in every 7Eleven that you would walk into and out of; there’s keluar in red text framed in a light box  at the end of your condominium’s hallway; dilarang merokok that you see in the buses, trains, and strangely even in salons where you see it staring at you as they shampoo your hair. Of course there is tandas, very crucial to know when the man and woman silhouette is nowhere to be seen and the need is pressing and time-bound. All these are ubiquitous and unglamorous words that no one bothers to teach you, but thankfully easily contextualised.

And then you level up with friends who somehow feel obliged to teach you the worst words in the language and make you say them like it was nobody’s business. After all, it’s all just gibberish to you. One such phrase was “Apa, apa lah, pergi mampos.” I memorised it and tried it out on someone first thing in the morning. He stopped in his tracks, stared at me and shrugged his shoulders as if to shake the bad vibes off his shirt. There, I learned that certain phrases don’t need to be translated, you just know when you’ve unlocked a newfound sass in you and was deeply judged in the process. 

And then it gets really interesting when the idiosyncrasies come into your vocabulary and you fully embrace it – the lah’s and the mah’s and the wei’s and the dei‘s – all meaningless syllables that suddenly complete your sentence and make you wonder how you could have lived your whole life without them. There is a code for this, some sort of syntax written in this country’s DNA, when a mah makes more impact than a lah and a wei is the only logical finish to “What’s wrong with you, wei?”

And everybody knows that when you become exasperated in a different country, you must do it in their language so as not to miss out on any emotion that you’ve held inside in that microsecond. Aiyo has been my personal favourite. I remember thinking how it perfectly completed my native Hay. Then there’s alamak that always amuses me when a true born and bred Malaysian blurts it out with almost always comes a unique comedic flair. And another interesting one that I’ve been trying to adapt but continuously fail at is walau-eh. I mean, come on, it’s 3 syllables that take you on a crazy roller coaster of stresses and accents, who would give up trying to weave this into a normal conversation?

Finally, you get to the second layer to your survival vocabulary. Tandas and tolak were your water, this was your life vest. In Malaysia, it was tak na pedas for every single place I ate in, whether it was chicken soup in a roadside stall or fried rice in a casual dining restaurant inside a mall. Their pedas was not the pedas from my neighborhood and I learned early on that it’s best not to take chances with this phrase. Just like in the months I studied in Hong Kong, I only ever learned one phrase in Mandarin, wo yao ping shuey*. You’d be surprised how useful this was in a city where most restaurants serve hot water for default drinking water on a sunny and humid day. *No clue how it’s spelled.

And then one meal comes into your life that will inspire you to learn how to say it correctly just so you could order it every time. Mine is roti bakar kaya, dua telur separuh masak. Minum, teh ice, kurang manis. Though the man taking your order is clearly having a hard time understanding you because locals would do a shortcut instead of saying every single word properly, you feel greatly accomplished when the toast that you order comes with kaya filling and not plain toast like the many times you’ve ordered wrongly before.

After all of this, you think you’ve come a long way only to realise that you still don’t know how to count to 10 or how to say basic directions to where you live but somehow, someway,  you can get away with almost seeming like a local – after repeatedly reading the translations of your press ads out loud or when you piece together the side comments in a meeting or when you hear a lady end her long story with pergi mampos, or, simply, just when you finish a conversation with a colleague and he casually says, “Boleh?” Boleh, bro.

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Hi, I'm Timmy. I believe in writing as a therapy, global warming and true love.

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