Friday, July 17, 2009


Someone ask me the other day whether I dreamt in English. Come to think of it, no. As far as dreams have language at all, mine had always been in my mother tongue - in earthy idiom of my kampung.

Do you find that you do different things in different languages? Some of the bilinguals, trilinguals and quadrilinguals I ask say this is the case with them.

One man says he thinks in English but feels in Malay. " Politics, money, officework in English . Family, music, poetry, love, hate - in Malay.

A girl who speak Tamil to her mother but English to the rest of her family, say she thinks in English most of the time and even sleep-talks in English, much to her mother's amusement. But recently after taking an intensive course in Bahasa, she began her sleep-talks in that language.

A friend of mine speaks Hokkien or Bazzar Malay ( Melayu Pasar ) to friends. He speaks English only to collegues and clents and to his Alsatian.....( Dogs only understand English, didn't you know this???). He dreamt in Hokkien. " And I curse in Hokkien too", he told me in Bazzar Malay" . " These things sound best in your native tongue".

But I know a true Malaysian - a former Matron of a girl's boarding school - who can do it in four languages. Just before she came on the scene, the school was pluged by obscene phone-calls.

I was in her room when she received one of these, on her second day at school. For a split second she froze. Then she brought forth a veritable torrent in reply - in English, Bahasa Malaysia, Tamil and Cantonese. Judging by the part in Malay and English, it was a work of art - combining tradition and innovation , graphic detail and dizzy flights of fancy.

The school had no more trouble with phone-calls.

Are you a true Malaysian in this respect? I am not. Like my Hokkien friend, I growl best in my native tongue. But I am very Malaysian in that I can never say a whole one sentence in one language when speakings to fellow Malaysians. Visitors to this country confess they have been both charmed and alarmed at the way we sprinkle vernacular all over our English.

They are startled and relieved to find that we do not do it when we speak with them. Why do we love to mix two or more languages in conversation? It is not because we cannot say it all in one language. Many a Penangite who speak flawless English is apt to break into the most bewildering mixture of Malaysian English, Malay Pasar, Cantonese and Hokkien, when he meets an old crony from his hometown.

I believe it is just the desire to be absolutely natural and relaxed with friends, and the multi-lingual's feeling that certain things can be said with most punch in certain languages.

( by Adibah Amin from AS I WS PASSING II page 220-221)

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