Wednesday, March 7, 2012

My Third Language

I've always considered Bahasa Melayu as my third language (or fourth, if you count Chinese and Cantonese as two separate languages). Don't ask me if my first language is English or Chinese. I can't answer that because I don't know. How do you define your first language? The one you talk the most in, write the most in, or think the most in? Or was it the very first language you learned to speak? I consider Cantonese not as my first language, but rather my native language, because it was the first language I used to make sense of the world. Ironically, I'm not a native Cantonese. I'm of Teochew lineage, but yet, I don't speak a word of Teochew.

Anyway, all that nonsensical charade aside - I consider Malay to be ranked bottom of my list amongst the languages I learned in terms of competency, fluency, and self identification. I never thought much of the language except as one I was forced to learn when I was young. During primary school days it was the bane of my life (at least for the first few years). Even Chinese (which I only started using properly in primary school) was not as bad, though they always say that Chinese is one of the most difficult languages to learn. Maybe it was because I never used Malay day in and day out at that point of time, whereas Chinese and English were integrated with my daily life.

It was a bit better in secondary school when I finally found out how to properly grasp the 'laws of the language'. And it reached a point where I kept on scoring A's in my Malay essays in Form 5, and I really enjoyed essay writing in Malay because every time a new essay was assigned, I'll find ways to phrase my words that everything sounds nice and unique and grand. But my essay writing skills went downhill in Form 6, and my General Paper answers were more or less in spoken Malay, which means I write as what I speak, no nice terms and all.

Today my supervisor asked me if I could still converse in Malay (because he wasn't used to speaking it anymore, having spent many years in Singapore). I replied 'yes!' a little too animatedly, and at that point of time I rather surprised myself how much I cared about still being able to read and write in this language. In fact, although I have hardly been using Malay here in Singapore or even back home in Malaysia, hearing the language being used in public places such as fast food restaurants or MRTs reminds me that I used to be able to speak and write in this language too.

Sometimes I would even practice Malay to myself inside my head, and be surprised at the number of words I still remember. This is a little extreme, but having been out of practice for so long, I'm a little shy to use this language in public even with my Malay colleagues, so I could only practice it mentally on my own so that I do not completely lose touch of it. Somehow it means a lot to me that I can still connect to others in Malay: I don't know why, but perhaps it's because this is Singapore and I need this little connection to feel that I'm 'still a Malaysian'.

I still wish that one day, I would be able to sit down and write a proper essay in Malay that is of some use to the world. I could blog in the language, but somehow it doesn't feel natural to do so, as all the writing I used to do in Malay were fact-based and had nothing to do with sentiments at all.

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