The last full-fledged Malay conversation I had must have been at least a year ago, possibly with someone elderly at a family gathering. Since moving abroad for college, I’ve written maybe ten sentences and spoken less than 100 words of Malay. It isn’t as though I’m horrible at the language — in fact, given my GCSEs, I would be categorised as being highly proficient — but it was simply that there was no one else to speak it to. The number of Malay speakers I know living in London could be counted on one hand and given our crazy school schedules, meeting up for a chat in Malay was hardly a priority.
Interning at EuroTalk as a Malay translator for the new Mathematics app has thankfully brought me back to my roots as a Malay speaker from Singapore. As expected of Asian families, my grandparents have often complained of the lack of association I have had with my mother tongue. Even more so with my move to London, 19 months ago. I am reminded to speak the language and act Malay, whatever that implies, each time I return to Singapore for vacation. Equally embarrassing are the quizzes my parents have decided to now throw me. At a restaurant last Winter break, my father quizzed, ‘What do you call radishes in Malay?’, which took me quite a while to recall. Sitting down for hours translating the Maths app has forced me to recall trivial words like ‘circle’ or ‘triangle’, things I would normally not say out loud—just imagine saying ‘Pass me the triangle-shaped biscuit’.
Malay in Singapore
Mother tongue as a school subject was made compulsory by the Singapore government in the 1980s, and although it is not used as the main language of instruction, it has been used to teach subjects like Social Studies. This policy was adopted by the Ministry of Education to emphasise the growing need to preserve the myriad of languages spoken in the country. However, its effectiveness in getting the younger generation to actively speak the language remains to be seen.
Singapore, a small island in the Malay Archipelago, is one of three countries with a good number of Bahasa speakers. Bahasa is the superset of modern languages such as Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Melayu (or Malay), both of which were derived from Sanksrit. Two other countries that speak Bahasa are our neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia. Unlike these two countries, however, Singapore’s economic position as a leading global city in the region of Southeast Asia has necessarily led to rapid rates of globalisation in the nation-state, resulting in the dilution of traditional languages like Malay, and other Chinese dialects due to the government’s choice of English as the main language of instruction. Malaysians and Indonesians, on the other hand, continue to mainly converse in Bahasa and clearly take more pride in the language.
Aside from globalisation, the ethnic diversity of Singapore could also be to blame for the lack of need to preserve Malay amongst its speakers. As an ethnic minority group in the country, Malays face colleagues, friends and sometimes even family, who don’t speak the language. 4 out of 5 of my closest friends are Chinese and when I worked at an architecture firm last year for my summer break, none of my colleagues were Malay. It is this unique racial make-up of Singapore that I sometimes blame for my lack of use of the Malay language. The only opportunities I got to speak the language were with my grandparents or at school during mother tongue classes. Even my parents were of a generation that experienced the full impacts of globalisation and were brought up to master English so as to be able to contribute to the economic development of the nation. Occasionally, my family would get visitors from Malaysia or Indonesia who I would then have to converse with in Malay, but such opportunities only came once or twice annually.
Unlike Malaysia and Indonesia, Singapore is seeing dwindling numbers of Malay speakers. In my graduating year from high school, not more than fifteen Malay speakers throughout the country went on to study the language at the National University of Singapore, and the numbers are falling. Unfortunately, we are also increasingly relying on these few enthusiasts to spread the interest and use of the language in Singapore, in addition to incoming migrants from neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia to do the same.
Of late, however, Singaporeans of other ethnicities are beginning to pick up the language. Although the numbers aren’t high, it is worthy to note the curiosity many are still having with Malay. Some are picking up the language for academic reasons and others, in the case of inter-racial marriages, to be able to communicate better with their spouses’ elderly relatives at family functions. Whatever their reasons, at least someone is looking after the language and hopefully this phenomenon will continue to build in Singapore.
Even as a younger generation Malay speaker who was forced into taking mother tongue classes at school, it saddens me to see the language dying. Ironically, by being miles away from home, I am driven to take every opportunity possible to speak or write the language. Thankfully, the internship at EuroTalk has enabled me to sit at the desk for hours recalling words I used to speak or only read in textbooks. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined myself using the Malay language in London in this context, but if it will keep me in touch with my roots then I’m not complaining, and neither are my parents.
After reading Konstantia’s post a few months ago about how many of our everyday words come from Greek, I started to think about where some of our other words came from. You might think that we are the ones influencing everyone else (words such as wifi in French, surfear for surfing the net in Spanish, and a lot of business jargon in German – downloaden, ein Workshop, ein Meeting and so on…), and of course that’s true. Most new inventions (the Internet, computers and related tech such as wifi) are named by Americans, and therefore the English word is often passed along to other cultures and absorbed into their languages. You’ll also find many non-English speakers throwing in English phrases amidst their native tongue. Any other Borgen fans will probably have noticed the way that characters casually use phrases such as ‘on a need to know basis’ whilst otherwise conversing in Danish. Clearly our language, especially in the business, IT and entertainment domains, has a huge global influence.
However, if you look a little further back, you’ll find us doing exactly the same thing. It might seem incredibly cool to Europeans now to use English or merely ‘English-sounding’ words day to day, but we’re just as guilty of language-envy or just pure laziness with French, especially. How to describe that annoying feeling of being sure you’ve already seen or done something? Déjà vu, of course. Not to mention dozens of other words and phrases we all use on a daily or regular basis: laissez faire, enfant terrible, a la carte, a la mode, arte nouveau, en route, faux pas… I could go on for pages. You’d probably struggle to go through a day without using at least one or two obviously French words. It’s almost as if we simply couldn’t be bothered to think of our own words for some of these things, although I also suspect it has a lot to do with our associations with French as chic (another one!) and sexy. This is especially true in the beauty industry, which explains the proliferation of products labelled visage or with names like touche eclat remaining in their original alluring French guise.
French is the best example, as they are our nearest geographical neighbours, and historically one of our closest political connections, which explains the huge interconnection of our languages. However, as soon as you think about it, there are hundreds of other words that have crept into our parlance from other languages. Words like Zeitgeist and one of my favourites Schadenfreude have come over from German, whilst our food vocabulary owes a lot to Spanish (salsa, jalapeno, tortilla, nacho, paella…) We’re also becoming ever more familiar with words and especially foods from China and Japan. Sushi, sake, kimono, karate, karaoke and so on are everyday words to us, whilst we happily order bok choy, chop suey and chow mein without even thinking about it, not to mention concepts like yen, zen and feng shui. Taekwondo has made its way over from Korea, whilst we’ve taken words like bamboo and paddy from Malay.
This is just a quick look at some of the more obvious ways that our language has spread globally, and how many words we have absorbed from nearby European countries, but also from more distant Asian cultures. We’re such a global country, and it’s strongly reflected in our language. We’d love to hear more examples of English words creeping into other languages or other foreign words you’ve noticed in English, so feel free to leave a comment below!
Cristina Mateos is our Catalan intern here at EuroTalk, working on translating and recording our maths apps. In her blog post she explores a reason for learning languages that is often forgotten.
Utility versus Beauty.
Utility: Hammers, zips, kettles, light bulbs, electricity, mobile phones.
Beauty: Handwritten postcards, dawns, coffee smell, lovers looking into each others’ eyes, handknitted scarves.
The world where I live stores useful belongings in closed wardrobes and turns on the radio so as not to listen to the silence around. As a Spanish teacher, I sell my courses by reminding these ‘utility users’ of the fact that 500 million people speak Spanish around the world. It is therefore extremely practical to be able to communicate in this language and to display that knowledge (especially if it comes with an official certificate) on one’s résumé. And I really believe that… and I am more than pleased with zips and light bulbs. But I feel sorry for the dawns. I feel sorry for the dawns and for language learners turning into language users. I would like my students to be able to ask for directions in Sevilla, complete a business deal with a big enterprise in Buenos Aires or get a train ticket in any Spanish train station, but I also want them to be fascinated by the beauty of my language.
Los rinocerontes no pueden leer. This is probably the most pointless sentence ever, unless you meet a woman crying in disappointment because a rhino isn’t answering her love letters, and you find it necessary to clarify for her that rhinos cannot read. But the sentence itself: its sonority, the combination of the ‘e’ letters together, the way grammar is used in it, the choice of the masculine gender instead of the feminine… it moves language away from usefulness and places it closer to poetry. Don’t you find it amazing how it’s possible to play with a language and build nonsense sentences? Making up words – and this is something, as language learners, that we constantly do when trying to refer to concepts we don’t know the name for – just by using common lexical rules? (Like The mugness of a morning, or This dog is so killable when it starts barking in the middle of the night.) Have you ever fallen in love with a word in your own language just because of the way it sounds, as if it were a piece of music with no meaning at all apart from the feelings it causes for you? If not, I can suggest one in English that I love: wibble. And I can provide one in Spanish too… barítono. Beautiful as a handknitted scarf.
Let me come back to the point. As a Catalan speaker, I feel also sorry for my second first language. Catalan has been left apart so many times in the name of utility that too often I need to make a real effort to keep on using it. I have been told that Spanish is more practical. More and more parents in non-English speaking countries choose a school for their children taking into account nothing but the number of hours their children are going to be taught English, because English (and now probably also Chinese?) is the Future.
Then, in Utility’s name… we can close small shops and open more and more supermarkets. We can burn poetry books and publish more instruction manuals. We can forget about nice roasts and pies and cheesecakes, and ingest vitamins and protein pills every morning.
But if, like me, you feel sorry for the dawns, then learn another language.
Learning a new language is a great experience: familiarising yourself with a new culture, discovering a new way to express yourself, and hopefully enabling yourself to order a beer in one more country. However, as a language-learner, you also need to be aware of the pitfalls that await you. The dreaded ‘false friends’ that lurk within every language, waiting to trip up the unsuspecting learner.
So what, you may ask, is a ‘false friend’? Well, would any non-Spanish speakers care to hazard a guess as to what decepción means? Bizarro? An éxito? Or even the verb pretender?
Ok, I’ll admit, one of the great things about learning Spanish is how often you can put an ‘o’ or an ‘a’ on an English word and get a Spanish one – dentista, artista, famoso, precioso… However, unfortunately for us English speakers, it doesn’t always work.
Rather than meaning deception, decepción is actually a disappointment; bizarro is not bizarre, but brave; un éxito is a success, not an exit; and pretender does not mean to pretend, but to try. It may be quite embarrassing to make a mistake like this, but resist the urge to describe yourself as embarazada – it actually means you’re pregnant!
German is just as bad. The Chef doesn’t cook (they’re the boss), someone brav may well be a coward (brav actually means nice/good), and, as many Brits have found out the hard way, asking for the Menü won’t get the waiter to bring you a list of available meals (they will probably bring you the day’s set meal). If you’re ordering food, also watch out for pepperoni – I’ve seen many a disappointed face when someone realises they’ve ordered a little green pepper instead of a salami pizza; and expect a funny look if you ask for a Rezept in a shop – this is a recipe not a receipt!
False friends, generally speaking, are words in another language that sound deceptively like a word in your language. Many a learner has found themself hazarding an (incorrect) guess as to the meaning of a word on the basis of its seeming familiarity, and sometimes when grasping for a word you can’t quite remember, you end up with something that sounds right, but unfortunately isn’t.
If you’re thinking of learning a new language though, please don’t be put off by these examples! False friends are just one of the many interesting things about learning a new language, even if they can occasionally lead to misunderstandings. There is definitely no need to be embarrassed about making a mistake, as that is the best way to learn, and most native speakers will find it funny, rather than annoying.
If anyone else has any weird or funny examples of false friends they’ve encountered when learning another language, please share them with us!
Kana Tsumoto has just finished her internship with us, translating and recording our maths app into Japanese. In this post, she explains why she’s excited about her chosen career in interpreting.
The other night when I stayed at a youth hostel, I had an uncomfortable conversation with one of my roommates. I told her how I just finished a university course in Translation and Interpreting and how I am about to embark on my new career as a translator/interpreter. Then, in a not so roundabout way, she started to criticise my future profession, describing it as a boring task; merely repeating what has already been stated but in a different language! I shouldn’t have let her get on my nerves, but she did. I endured this for three days, and on the fourth she left. The initial joy felt at her absence soon descended into shame. It suddenly dawned on me that I had been a massive coward! I had failed to stand up for my profession, failed to defend it against a misinformed foe! Since then, I have been composing in my mind a grand speech on how wonderful translating and interpreting is. I would like to take this opportunity to share this speech, and dedicate it to my roommate in 303.
Interpreting is, in fact, very exciting and very demanding! You definitely do need an extremely good command of the language you are interpreting into/from, but surprisingly more important are other skills including for example research management skills, communication skills, a sense of conciseness and even drawing skills! I was flabbergasted myself by this when I first started the course. Let me go through some of these skills with you.
Communicating skills: Interpreting belongs to the service industry. So as a service, being able to communicate with your clients is a vital skill. Interpreters need flexible communication skills to survive in many different environments, such as court rooms and their tense atmosphere, to the bonhomie found at sales talks, or the acute technical details found at academic conferences.
Researching: Interpreters spend a significant amount of time on research. This takes place prior to the actual performance. An hour long session of interpreting can require days, even weeks, of research for it to be successful. Research allows the interpreter to familiarise themselves with the terminology and theories that are going to be employed during a speech or conference. Interpretation without research is in some cases impossible. If you don’t know what is being said then how can you translate?! A good interpreter immerses themselves within their particular field, becoming expert in their chosen subject.
Drawing skills: We interpreters are artists when it comes to taking notes. During consecutive interpreting, we usually make quick notes of the speech. But of course we don’t have much time for writing down stuff, nor can we spend much time looking at the notes when performing; we have to talk to the audience, not to our notes! So we take notes through the medium of drawing, or rather, in symbols! The symbols need to be simple enough to scribble down and meaningful enough to allow us to understand the logical flow and the details in just one glance.
Last but definitely not least…
Sense of conciseness: This, I find most difficult to improve (I’m going to have trouble explaining conciseness concisely, oh dear!… But here I go!). The best translation that suits the context and the intention of the speech may not be the translation you find in the dictionary. A good interpreter never burdens the audience with the task of trying to understand the interpretations; they are like a guide on a cruise liner, taking with them passengers for a seaside tour in the greatest of comfort. A bad interpreter however, forces their passengers to balance out the back of the boat on water skis, whilst showing them the same scenery. Exercising the skills of conciseness in the midst of interpreting is not an easy task, and it comes only through lots and lots of practice. It is an art form, and when it is done right it is beautiful!
As you can see, interpreting can be a very demanding job. It comes with everyday hard work. The process of striving for something and then accomplishing it is definitely exciting. Now put that in your pipe and smoke it, my roommate from the hostel! ;)