Malaysian English – You were right, Dad!

These last two years living in Malaysia have been more of a journey of self discovery than I had anticipated. My ability to adapt and cope and support my family has been stretched at times. But along the way I have experienced some enlightening moments when an attitude or opinion is challenged or, conversely, suddenly makes perfect sense.

I’m teaching English at a local college in Malaysia. Most of the diploma courses are taught in English but language skills are poor. My role is to improve English standards and expose the students to my “Britishness” along the way! To this end I have been writing, directing and organizing a whole college drama production. It was always going to be an uphill struggle!

When I was young, my father, who was brought up in the 1930’s by his French mother and grandmother in England, would always adopt a pidgin English style of talking to non native English speakers, whether at home or abroad. It really irritated myself and my sisters. We would tease and complain at any opportunity. Maybe his upbringing had something to do with it, but we showed no mercy and felt he shouldn’t be patronizing.

So, in my role as English mentor, I have tried to be careful to speak clearly and use correct grammar and vocabulary. Last week I addressed a hall full of students, explaining to them how the afternoon would be organized and what everyone should do next. I had taken time planning the event, which was an afternoon of auditions and brain storming for our production. I was expecting them to then stand up and move off to their respective tasks. Instead, I was met with silence and blank faces! I repeated my instructions, looking round encouragingly, only to realize that my words were having no effect.

One of the other tutors, a Malaysian, took pity on me and stepped forward. He whispered “They don’t understand you!” He then proceeded to repeat exactly what I had said, in English too, but crucially with his local accent. The hall started to wake up, students were responding to his instructions, talking and moving. One of my requests had been for those students wanting to audition for the main roles, to follow me to the auditorium. I thought they were voting with their feet, but once they understood, I was able to lead a group of students out of the hall. Quite a relief!

The Malaysian tutor spoke good English but it was really the equivalent of my Father’s pidgin English. The language style I had regarded as ‘wrong’ was actually the right language in those
circumstances. Yes, in the classroom, proper grammar and structure should be taught, and the students led by example. But no one owns the English language, and over time every country where English is a second language adapts it to suit the users. I am now using Malaysian English much more in everyday communications – at the shops, to get fuel etc – and finding myself much better understood.  In return, I am listening more carefully and picking up on common phrases and hidden meaning. I don’t always take words at face value, understanding more from a person’s body language, tone and expression. Just as I would in the UK, but knowing this is Malaysian style!

So, there’s something I must say to the one who was right all along. Sorry, Dad!

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