I’m delighted to introduce a guest post today, the first on my blog. My previous colleague Ratna from Malaysia has very kindly accepted my request for an article about the goings-on of her mind when she speaks her three native languages. I hope you enjoy her insights! You can also check out her own blog here: http://ratnavathy.wordpress.com
The Joy of a Polygot : Speaking in multiple languages
“To have another language is to possess a second soul” Charlemagne (742/7 – 814), King of the Franks
So, I’m a polyglot! How did that come about, you may ask?
Well, I used to sit beside a lovely Malaysian-Indian colleague at my previous workplace. We enjoyed each other’s company so much that our laughters of delight constantly filled the staff room. Each time this happened, one of our colleagues, Anthony (who owns this blog, by the way, thanks for the invitation for a blogpost, Anthony!) looked up from his desk, smiled and said “You guys sound so happy” or “It must’ve been a good joke” or “It’s nice to see people being so happy”.
Much later, Anthony told me that it wasn’t so much about the laughter. What really intrigued him was the way we both communicated in 3 different languages simultaneously (the languages being Tamil, Malay, and English). Anthony was (and still is) very curious as to how we managed to do so with such ease, yet produce such spontaneity in the utterances. Hence, here I am, trying to feed his curiosity by analyzing my own speech utterances, in the hope of gaining some insight into how my mind worked and identifying the possible factors that may have influenced my trilingual speech production.
Just a prior disclaimer, though. I am in no means an expert on this subject. I do hope that any misappropriate coinage of linguistic terms is taken with a pinch of salt.
The Inception Of It All
Anthony termed our ability as “quadlingualism”, a rather grand word. To me, I’d say that our trilinguistic abilities stem from the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual nation that we hail from. These trilinguistic abilities have paved the way to the inception of what I’d love to call as “colloquial trilingualism” or Manglish, as it’s best known to the world. So, what is Manglish? According to Wikipedia, Manglish is an English-based Creole spoken in Malaysia, and largely consists of vocabulary from English, Malay, Tamil, Hokkien, Mandarin and Cantonese (the last three being the varities of the Chinese language spoken in Malaysia). Interestingly, Manglish in itself, is spoken differently within the various regions of Malaysia with the infusion of each of the region’s local slang. There is also a variation in pronunciation according to the existing ethnicities in Malaysia. For instance, an Indian and a Chinese would sound quite different when attempting to communicate the same message!
Manglish manages to creep into EVERY conversation spoken by Malaysians, may it be a single word (like the famous suffix ‘lah’) or an entire utterance .We just can’t help it; it’s such an innate part of our individuality as Malaysians. It’s amusing how many Malaysians have ‘split personalities’ where language is concerned; we speak proper English whenever neccesary, yet automatically switch to Manglish, our comfort language, the minute we start winding down!
In case you’re still at loss as to what Manglish is, I believe that the following YouTube clips would succinctly shed some light on this language:
Now, in all honestly, I must say that Manglish would sound like an “absolutely ridiculous and poorly-spoken version of English with a lot of strange words thrown in” to any foreigner visiting Malaysia. In fact, Manglish can sometimes lead to miscommunication between a local and a foreigner! Most foreginers, though, eventually get used to the language. Some even try mimicking it in the name of fun; We smile, and take it in our stride!
So, which forms of Manglish do I Speak?
The conversations that took place between me and my colleague were actually different varieties of code-switching, a common speech habit among bilinguals, trilinguals and polyglots. Code-switching is alternate switching between languages in the course of a single conversation. In reflecting on the conversations that I’ve had with my colleague, I was able to classify our utterance structures into the following categories:
a) Intersentential switching – Switching between languages outside the sentence or clause.
For example : What time is he coming? Innum angge enna seiraan?
(What time is he coming? What’s he doing there?)
b) Intrasentential switching – Switching between languages inside the sentence or clause, where
either one of the form of either one of the languages can be used as the base form. The above
structure is a combination of English and Tamil.
For example : i) Such a madaiyan, he doesn’t even think before speaking!
(Such an idiot/fool/, he doesn’t even think before speaking!
Note : As you can see above, the article ‘a’ is used for the Tamil word “madaiyan” which begins with the alphabet M, and the sentence is based on the English language’s syntax.
ii) Breakfastku enna saapteengga?
(What did you have for breakfast?)
Note: The sentence above is based on the Tamil language’s syntax, with an English word inserted.
Iii) Apasal dia tak try lagi sekali?
(Why hasn’t he/she tried again?)
Note : The sentence above is based on the Malay language’s syntax, with an English word inserted into the sentence.
iv) That guy real mangkukla!
(That guy’s really foolish!)
Note : Although most of the words are in English, this sentence is a direct translation from the Malay language, which literally means that the syntax of the above sentence is also of Malay. Also, the word “mangkuk” is a Malay slang. The literal meaning of mangkuk is plate, but the slang denotes foolishness/naiveness.
Although the sentences above may seem atrociously ridiculous, they are in fact, very common strategies employed by bilingual/trilingual/multilingual speakers. In his book How to Teach Speaking, Scott Thornbury explains how second or foreign language speakers of English employ communication strategies to achieve strategic competence in the target language (as demonstrated above). Among the strategies employed include circumlocution, foreignizing a word, word coinage, and language switch (or code switching).
Why do I Combine Languages When Speaking?
Initially, I did not have the slightest idea as to why I did so. The reasons below, though, seem feasible enough to substantiate my actions:
a) Smooth flow of communication
When I combine languages to speak, I feel an ease in communication and the ability to convey the exact message that I intend to. For example, in the course of a conversation with a fellow Malaysian, there are many a times when I find myself searching my mind for a specific word in, say Tamil, but fail to so due to the infrequency of that particular word’s usage. In times like this, I find myself retrieving the synonym of the Tamil word in Malay / English; it definitely ensures a smooth flow in communication!
b) Saves time
When I’m in the midst of explaining something interesting/exciting, getting the right words can sometimes become a barrier. It’s almost like I’ve got the exact picture in my mind, but just not able to find the right words to explain it! In this case, I find myself switching to another language that has the synonym of the word I’m looking for. A true time saver!
c) Vibrancy of Communication
Anyone who speaks multiple languages would admit that the richness of languages is enhanced with the inclusion of slang (as with English too). Slang terms can sometimes be very meaning-specific. At times, it can even get quite impossible to find words or phrases from another language with exact meanings! In cases like this, I find myself reaching out for the Malay of Tamil slang word to be inserted into my English utterance. Also, words in slang have stresses placed differently, depending on the way it intends to be used. So, one might feel a lot more satisfied using a slang word from another language than trying to utter the appropriate word in the language that they’re currently speaking. It just adds on to the vibrancy and satisfaction of having a conversation.
So, there you go! I think I’ve finally understood the reasons I choose to speak the way I do.
Having said that, though, I must confess that Manglish causes a bit of a dilemma for me. As an ELT educator, I condone this language, deeming the utterances as poor speech habits. I am very particular about the way I speak in class, and have always detested English teachers who spoke Manglish during their lessons. But, as a Malaysian, I do think it’s perfectly fine to embrace Manglish as part of our cultural identity. The problem is, Manglish has fossilized so deeply within the roots of the Malaysian culture that people, generally, have trouble differentiating between this spoken-Creole and proper English. This has become the bane of our nation and is constantly debated upon heatedly by many. There is still much to be done to raise awareness among Malaysians on the importance of differentiating Manglish and English. Sadly, it is not going to be an easy journey.