Freespace - Taking pride in our language

IT wasn't that long ago when I wrote about how a Chinese credit card salesman approached me in a shopping mall, trying to sell his wares to me in Mandarin. When I said, "Sorry, I don't understand", his response was "Oh sir! You are not Malaysian?"

This irked me. We are Malaysians and our national language is the Malay language, the use of which I am relatively proficient. The language I customarily speak is English. Looking at our constitution, one can see that Malay is the primary language of our nation, and also from our constitution, one can see how important the English language is, not to mention the international importance of the English language.

Both languages were taught in school and I went to national schools, not private or international schools. In addition, I took "Pupil's Own Language", in my case Mandarin, taught to us in the Cantonese dialect. Obviously, this made the learning curve for us mixed kids in the classroom quite steep.

But as a Malaysian, I think I fare pretty well language-wise. This is why the salesman's reaction was somewhat of a surprise. Pockets of Malaysia are like this, for those who don't believe me. Of course, it's not often that a Malaysian gasps when I can't speak any Chinese dialect and ask my friends, "Is he Malaysian?" Often, it is foreign workers.

But the thing is, Malay is not a difficult language to pick up. Does it have gender for nouns? No. Does it have conjugation of verbs? Nope. Add one word and it becomes past tense. Add another word and it becomes future tense. Add a prefix to a verb and it becomes the passive voice. In addition, Malay is not a tonal language. "Makan" is still "eat" no matter what tone it is said in. Difficult? Not at all!

All right, no one is asking us to communicate with each other in Bahasa Puisi or Bahasa Klasik. No one speaks that way on the streets. Can't remember the right word? Throw in an English word and hope for the best!

Yet in many places, usually eateries, Malay seems to be one of the least spoken languages around. I have to make do with pointing and gesturing and throwing in hopeful words from either English or Malay. Sometimes no effort is made at all on the part of the "service provider" to understand what I am saying. It is as if they were communicating to me, "You don't speak my language? Tough, I don't speak yours!"

You might ask that if I did learn some Mandarin in school, why don't I use it? Simple. If I speak a bit in Mandarin, then a torrent comes back to me and I am left baffled. When I then say "I don't understand", whether or not in Mandarin, the speaker appears baffled that I can say so much and understand so much, but not more than that. So best to pretend I have no clue at all as to what's going on.

It is no wonder then that Malay speakers might get a little hostile, don't you think? Malay is after all our national language. The funny thing is national languages remain national languages whichever country one travels to. If one is in Indonesia, one speaks or at least attempts to speak Indonesian. If one is in Spain or Germany, one does the same with Spanish or German. Have you ever been to Paris? Try going up to the counter at the underground and saying, "One ticket please" and see what kind of experience you will have.

The Malay language is taught in schools and it isn't difficult to pick up. As with any language, one just needs to remember the vocabulary. Why then is it so hard for non-Malay speaking Malaysians to make an attempt to speak or understand the language?

Daniel has a passion for fitness and travel. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com