Sustainable learning

The Joy of a Polygot : Speaking in multiple languages


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:

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.



3 thoughts on “The Joy of a Polygot : Speaking in multiple languages

  1. I can’t get what particular races or countries of speaking English you referred to in your write up ‘The Joy of a Polygot’, anyway, the localized English language is spoken within their circles, races or countries which they understand among themselves only is ok. But people from other countries and the English speaking nations who do not understand the local language or dialect will not understand what they are trying to communicate.

    This idea to propagate the localized English is not new and it has been spoken out by most Asean countries, and I first heard it sometimes ago from the Singaporeans who tried to bring up the English language in Singapore as Singlish.

    Since most Asean countries have common races-speaking Malay, Chinese, Tamil, Urdu and Indonesian-Javanese, it’s good idea if an organization of the local-English language be established and meet regularly at a forum or workshop to discuss the subject and finally globalize it.

    Further to your article, mostly quoted from Tamil and Chinese language but not much from the Malay which as Malay is more common in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei, the examples from Malay language should be emphasized. Most words that you mentioned are real English words spoken together in a local language or vice versa, when spoken, their meaning do not change and this type of mixed language is common to all races and countries all over the world. But what really contribute to the Manglish or any localized English is that when an English word or phrase is spoken it does not make sense to the English. Mostly the words derive from a direct translation of a local phrase or word. For instance, the words/phrases like “Come! Come!; Follow me!; I want to cut my hair”; carry someone, the fruits are already cooked=riped, and some writers like to use phrases like “pour your feeling/ideas=curahkan perasaanmu/pendapatmu; bail the experience= menimba pengalaman, and many more – These are not understood or misunderstood with different meaning by the English. And a joke we used to tell about – when you were asked at the eleventh hour to replace someone to give a lecture – we say, “like a jumping midwife”=bidan terjun. The You Tube, in your clip – Seminar on Manglish shows some good examples.

    Your ‘mangkuk’ phrase is not a Malay phrase and mangkuk is not a plate, but a bowl.

    The suffix ‘lah’, thought to be originally from a Malay word which is also widely spoken in Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei.

    List of words in your clip – Malaysian Slang – are local words either Malay, Chinese or Indian and they can be translated directly to English and then can be understood by the English. Except the Chinese, Indian and other languages written in Malay, the original Malay words can be found in a dictionary so their usage will not be Manglish.

    The notion of using localized English can either be stopped as it ridicules the English or propagate it further until it is well known globally as a proper recognized English language. Either way, education plays an important part:

    1. To propagate it – have it officially written especially in a dictionary and spoken, then educate our
    societies, especially the teachers, students and all government employees and the laymen of course,
    including the taxi drivers the meaning of the words when translated to English or vice versa.

    2. To ban it or ignore it requires negative explanation and inform all societies to stop using the words
    completely as they are improper and brand them as taboos. And most importantly to the teachers,
    educators, students and writers, try not to use direct translation word by word in your writing as in
    most cases they will give different meaning. But try to learn proper English language instead.

  2. Hello Col,

    Thanks for such an informative input! You’re right, mangkuk is not a plate, it’s a bowl. Apologies for that, it was a mistake and thank you for highlighting it.

    As you’ve probably read from my article, it’s more of a personal reflection from me; it’s non academic, does not contain lots of research of any sort; it’s just me thinking out loud (and I did mention that in the write-up as well).

    perhaps I’ve heard more Indians and Chinese speak English that way. It would be really welcomed if you could expand on the article by writing up an extension – Manglish from the Malay perspective? We can always post it here on this blog! And there could never be a better candidate than yourself (I’m guessing that you’re Malay, and would definitely be able to write a good article up based on your life-long observation of how Malays spoke English in Malaysia).

    With regards to using localized English, I honestly do not think it would be possible to put an end to it. We can do our best as language teachers, to speak English the way it’s meant to be spoken; We can teach and encourage students in our classes to speak the right way; But I don’t think we’d ever be able to ban or completely stop the way it’s used.


  3. Hello Col,

    Thank you for your interest in Ratna’s post. You obviously have some similar experience is this area. Can you tell us some more of your own personal experiences?


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