Sunday, May 17, 2009

Communication challenges in Malaysia

One of my realisations during my recent trip to Malaysia is that it seems to be a country fraught with communication problems. I'm just not talking about my communication problems as a foreigner, that's a given. I mean Malaysians themselves having difficulty getting messages across to one another. Only the thing is, I think they are so used to it that they just take it for granted now.

The problem is this:

Most Malaysians speak 2 languages, very frequently 3, and not uncommonly 4. Which is good for communication in one sense. The problem is that typically, they only speak one of those languages well. Now this works fine most of the time. Because most day-to-day interactions are either with people of similar social position who share your first language, or if they don't speak your first language, you probably know enough of a shared language to get the basic idea across.

But "getting the basic idea across" only goes so far. To get specific and detailed information out of people can be a real challenge.

The best example of this is in a restaurant. In the vast majority of eateries, you'll have no problem ordering food. Should you ever want to know anything more specific about the food however, that's when the problems arise. So, "One ice coffee" will be understood, no problem. Asking, "Does the ice coffee use fresh milk or condensed milk?" means your chances of getting a satisfactory answer are considerably lower. "Do you have anything gluten-free?" will either get you a quizzical look, or a response of "No, nothing for free here. Must pay."

Most restaurant workers' English only goes to a certain point. If you know Malay, you can try that instead. But of course, unless they are actually Malay, their Malay will only go so far as well.

Malaysian people have totally internalised this and adapted their behaviour. For all the diversity of Malaysian food, all the Malaysians I know seem to almost always order something familiar. There are a number of different common categories of restaurants (Chinese, South Indian, mamak, kopitiam, etc), which each have a more or less standard selection food items. Thus, a local rarely spends long looking at the menu (which is usually written on the wall). Indeed, we went to one Chinese restaurant that actually had no menu; we just said what we wanted, with a few suggestions from the waitress, and it was done.

Another way that Malaysians adapt to language challenges is to instinctively judge a person's ethnic background and social status, which gives clues as to which language to address them in. This happens so often in Malaysia that I don't think anyone even thinks about it - its a split-second appraisal just before opening the exchange.

Here is a rough guide to how it works, and I'm obviously making gross generalisations here:

ETHNIC GROUP: Chinese
SOCIAL STATUS: Working class
1st LANGUAGE: Hokkien, Cantonese or other
SPEAKS MALAY: enough to get by
SPEAKS ENGLISH: a little

ETHNIC GROUP: Chinese
SOCIAL STATUS: Wealthy/middle class
1st LANGUAGE: English or Hokkien/Cantonese/etc
SPEAKS MALAY: fairly well
SPEAKS ENGLISH: probably fairly well

ETHNIC GROUP: Tamil
SOCIAL STATUS: Working class
1st LANGUAGE: Tamil
SPEAKS MALAY: fairly well
SPEAKS ENGLISH: a little if you're lucky

ETHNIC GROUP: Tamil
SOCIAL STATUS: Wealthy/middle class
1st LANGUAGE: English
SPEAKS MALAY: fairly well
SPEAKS TAMIL: probably, but not necessarily well

ETHNIC GROUP: Malay
SOCIAL STATUS: Working class
1st LANGUAGE: Malay
SPEAKS ENGLISH: a little if you're lucky

ETHNIC GROUP: Malay
SOCIAL STATUS: Wealthy/middle class
1st LANGUAGE: Malay
SPEAKS ENGLISH: probably fairly well

ETHNIC GROUP: Chindian (half Chinese, half Indian)
SOCIAL STATUS: Wealthy/middle class
1st LANGUAGE: English
SPEAKS MALAY: fairly well
SPEAKS TAMIL: not necessarily
SPEAKS CHINESE: not necessarily

But a lot of these suppositions are flawed too. If you are Chinese and meet a fellow Chinese, he or she will not necessarily speak the same dialect as you. Likewise, if you are Tamil and go to speak Tamil to a fellow Indian, there's a chance he may be Malayalee instead. And then, just to complicate things, there are the indigenous peoples. In Sarawak, for example, the Ibans look pretty much like Malays. But they do not necessarily speak Malay well and are likely to prefer English.

And of course there are foreign workers. Malaysia is full of them - Filipinos, Indonesians, Burmese, Nepalese, Bangladeshis and Indians - and all can be easily confused some kind of Malaysian national. The guy serving you in a mamak joint, for example, is quite likely to be fresh off the boat from Chennai and will speak little or no Malay and little better English.


Manglish
It is no wonder that in this crowded linguistic environment, Manglish was born. Manglish (short for Malaysian English, though it could equally mean mangled English) is basically a creole language, English reduced to its simplest form for use across cultures. It's a language where you can say things like, "Hey where got? No, dowan lah... hey why like that? Can or cannot?" and it makes perfect sense. Grammar and all the other things that make standard English such a difficult language to learn, become unimportant and insignificant details that can be dispensed with easily. Indeed, its syntax frequently resembles Malay or Cantonese more than English.

Manglish is not used in any official capacity, and never really written down. Some Malaysians might speak a bit of Manglish but be no good at standard English, whereas Malaysians who speak good standard English will often slip in and out of Manglish depending on the situation and who they are talking to.

Manglish (like the almost identical Singlish, or Singaporean English) contains a large number of words and phrases that would make little sense to speakers of standard English. Many of these are borrowed from Chinese dialects, Malay, and to a lesser extent Tamil. There are too many to list here, but here are some of the favourites I have picked up:


fong fei kei: to bail on a plan, to not show up when agreed. (“Why you always fong fei kei, man?”). Sometimes abbreviated to FFK.

ta pao: to get take away. (“You going out for mee goreng? Ta pao some for me.”

talking cock: talking crap. (“What you do last night? We just hang out at the kopitiam, talking cock.” Not as rude as it sounds, it comes from the phrase “cock and bull story”.

shiok: awesome, outstanding. (“That movie is damn shiok, lah.”)

shiok sendiri: full of oneself. (“You so shiok sendiri!”) Sendiri means “self” in Malay, so this phrase literally refers to someone who thinks they are pretty shiok.

12 comments:

  1. In your article, I can see you are bit confused about many things. What’s you wrote is not 100% true fact about Malaysia and Malaysians.

    1) In Malaysia Malay, Indian, Chinese is a race, not an "ETHNIC GROUP" like you refers on your article.

    2) Chinese in Malaysia speak Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese and others dialects. Same goes with Malay, Indian and others have many dialects.

    3) In Malaysian education system, you MUST learn to English, Malay, then you have options to learn Mandarin Tamil, Arabic, Thai and others, depends which school their are study.

    4) Just like Chinese, Malay also have many dialect and difference state have own dialect and also difference ethnic background. Same goes with Indian and those from Borneo.

    5) I can see you just assume this is Malaysia and then you even categorise what Malaysians1st language at home by their "SOCIAL STATUS", i find this very funny. Generally, I don't think you know what you talking about.

    Next time please do proper research before write something, which is far not true. Cheers!

    ReplyDelete
  2. @ Anonymous:

    I appreciate your feedback as a Malaysian; however I think some of your criticisms are incorrect or stem from you not having understood the article correctly.

    You said: "What’s you wrote is not 100% true fact about Malaysia and Malaysians."

    If I want to make it 100% true, this would be the longest post ever. Note that I wrote:
    "Here is a rough guide to how it works, and I'm obviously making gross generalisations here"

    I'll answer you point by point.

    1) Chinese, Indians and Malays may be termed as "races" in Malaysia, but in the broader world, that is not a scientifically correct term; ethnic group is more appropriate.

    2) I'm pretty sure my article says that exact same thing.

    3) You are correct that everyone learns Malay and English at school. However, just because someone has learned it doesn't mean they can actually speak it properly. I have plenty of Malaysian-Chinese friends whose Malay is almost non-existent. And I've tried to get by speaking only English in Malaysia, and it doesn't really work.

    4) Fair enough. But see the early bit about generalising.

    5) If you think this is incorrect, please explain why. As a general rule, the higher someone's socio-economic status in Malaysia, the greater their fluency in English. The average working-class Malay, Indian or Chinese person has only very basic English skills at best.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. great article. really enjoy reading it. may i ask for your permission to use some of the points (very useful one) for my paper?

      Delete
    2. Go right ahead, just give proper credit.

      Delete
  3. well i am a malaysian, a first year degree student major in communication studies, and based on what i had studied, 'ethnic group' is far correct than 'races'.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm pretty suprised about the 'crowded linguistic environment' that exists in Malaysia... I didn´t know that! I follow some malaysian people on twitter who seem to speak English fairly well and then they're like: "bla bla bla LAH bla bla bla DUNNO" therefore I can't understand what they're saying. Finally I got it. Thank you.

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  5. you seriously don't know what you'are talking about. our grammar may be incorrect as yours, but it is not a communication failure, it is a cultural different. i am malaysian, but i dont have any difficulty getting messages across one another.

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  6. hi, im also a malaysian. And i do agree that manglish is beautiful and in fact meaningful for fellow malaysians. and, true, for malaysians do not have and encounter difficulties getting messages across one another, thats also true. but! When it comes to foreigners, theyre here to visit and i believe that they could not understand our manglish. Especially when theres the -lah at the end of our sentences. Or even our direct translation of "mana ada" = "where got". Thus this is where the need for speaking full and correct english appear. Well, theres always two sides of a coin.

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  7. im malaysian..tidak apa..itu mungkin pandangan dia..ada benarnya. jangan cepat gelabah..sepatutnya kita terima pandangan dia sebagai orang luar yang memberi pendapat. take it and perbaiki. apapun..kita patut bangga..itulh kelebihan kepelbagaian di malaysia.

    ReplyDelete
  8. im malaysian..tidak apa..itu mungkin pandangan dia..ada benarnya. jangan cepat gelabah..sepatutnya kita terima pandangan dia sebagai orang luar yang memberi pendapat. take it and perbaiki. apapun..kita patut bangga..itulh kelebihan kepelbagaian di malaysia.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Good sharing!!!
    Really informative and helpful...
    ghostwriting services malaysia
    Thank you...

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hey guys, I'm Malaysian (but I prefer to be a free thinker here :) ).
    Fact: Malaysia is a country which has different races (or ethnic groups)
    HOWEVER, most students in Malaysia MUST learn three language (or two, based on what school they're studying at) - English, Malay (and Chinese).

    This doesn't make any difference actually, because most pupil that were introduce to the working society weren't restrained from speaking any language! Instead, it depends on who that person normally speaks to or what language the person loves to speak. This is an issue which I think most people haven't noticed that if you don't speak that language often, you might forget that language. Resulting a long term which might lead that language to die one day.

    Example, I'm Chinese, but I really love English. Once I enter a private International School, I speak and write English more than Chinese. This could be a major disadvantage for me as one day I might forget Chinese.

    Overall, language and communication is beautiful because it's a masterpiece, there's no emptiness but a meaningful perfect picture once you truly understand it without any doubt. ;)

    ReplyDelete