Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Learning 'Malaysian'

Malaysia's cultural diversity is one of the things I like about it most (apart from the food, the scenery and the girls [TBA]).

But while this multicultural melting pot is the reason behind many of these great experiences (including the food - sometimes ironically prepared in a melting pot), the downside of this ethnic smorgasbord is that it can be more difficult to converse with locals - as depending which state, city or even which side of the street you're walking down, the local language might be Malay, Arabic, Hokkien, Cantonese, or none of the above.

If you're the sort of considerate, respectful traveller who likes to make the effort to learn a few local phrases, this can mean working a little bit harder. But better to get tongue-tied trying to pronounce Arabic numbers than arrogantly assuming English will be spoken everywhere. Which it is. Even between Malaysians of different ethnic backgrounds, who typically use it as the de facto national language rather than learning to speak like their neighbours.

They only become fluent in two languages? That's just lazy. Not like me, with my sketchy German and bits and pieces picked up from other places I've been, most of which I pronounce wrong. Nope!

Malay numbers

I have to admit, the slightly lazy part of my brain that's been struggling to find meaning in symbols ever since I got to Greece - like some kind of rubbish Dan Brown protagonist - was delighted when I crossed the Malaysian border and saw that they use the Latin alphabet (that's English to you).

Fortunately, the mix of cultures here means I can still enjoy the spectacle of bi- and trilingual street signs in some areas, but at least I have some hint at what they're actually talking about now.

It's unlikely I'll ever have to speak Malay numbers out loud. But it's been a while since I racked my brain trying to impose literal meanings on wrongly pronounced sounds, so here's a mental mental image that helped me learn Malay numbers. This is arguably the mentallest mental image so far. Seriously, what the hell is this?

1 satu
2 dua
3 tiga

Hoshi Sato (satu) from Star Trek: Enterprise (nah, I never watched it either - but she's a hot Asian sci-fi woman, so it's not as if she escaped my attention) has been horrifically grafted onto the body of two tigers (dua tiga) in an Island of Doctor Moreau style blasphemy against nature. Can I have one, mummy?

The problem here will be remembering that one is 'satu' and not 'Sato' (or 'Hoshi' for that matter).

4 empat
5 lima
6 enam

Deanna Troi, the empath (empat) from Star Trek: The Next Generation (I was a nerd growing up in the nineties - of course I watched that) has been horrifically crossed with a lemur (lima), apparently in Vietnam (enam - 'in Nam' - yeah, I know, this is the worst one I've done yet, and that's saying something).

How will I remember that it's 'empat' and not 'Troi,' 'Deanna' or 'cleavage?' I won't. Lucky I never have to use this language, really.

7 tujuh
8 lapan
9 sembilan
10 sepuluh

I gave up at this point and let the madness take hold. Here's a French-looking rabbit (lapan) with its todger out (tujuh) in a semi-erect state (sembilan - yeah, because remembering 'semi' will definitely help me there).

Frustrated by this lazy and ridiculous nadir, the bunny commits seppuku, the Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment (sepuluh - yeah, that's the same word at all). Besides, I thought it was a French rabbit, so why's it turning Japanese all of a sudden? And isn't 'todger' a distinctly British expression anyway (if you live in 1973?)

Sod the rabbit, Malay numbers are too difficult. Let's learn some Arabic.

Arabic numerals


Back in Egypt, I found Arabic numbers extremely difficult to pronounce but extremely simple to read and write down. It only took me about five minutes of doodling practice to commit these to memory forever (or at least five months, as of today), though I'm jiggered if I can speak them aloud any further than 'sifr' (zero - and how are you even supposed to pronounce that one? God, it's almost like the language evolved in a completely different part of the world to the one I grew up in or something).

Knowing what these numbers look like can be useful to avoid getting ripped off or when looking for trains and other numbered things. Here's how I remember them:

0 ٠
1 ١
2 ٢
3 ٣

Numbers zero to three are nice and easy. They depict the natural evolution of an abstract figure - a dot (zero) that extends into a line (one), grows a branch (two) and then... grows another squiggly bit (three - yeah alright, so I have trouble describing the characteristics of abstract shapes. Let's all laugh at Dave).

4 ٤
5 ٥
6 ٦

The next three are trickier, abandoning the figure we've nurtured so far (shame, I was just getting attached) and bearing no relation to the Latin characters English speakers will be more familiar with. Apart from six (٦) that is, which looks confusingly like a seven but is more like an inverted two (٢). Deal with it.

Four (٤) doesn't look like a 4 or have any visual similarity to other numbers in the set, so you just have to remember it as the E-one and live with it. Five (٥) is easier to remember, when you think of the hollow circle being a half-way opposite of zero's filled circle (٠). This distinction is easier to see when dealing with tens and units - compare 30 (٣٠) with 35 (٣٥).

7 ٧
8 ٨
9 ٩

Seven (٧) and eight (٨) are a nice pair, and thus easier to remember, even though they don't resemble their Latin counterparts at all. My main problem here was remembering which one came first, as I intuitively thought the upwards-pointing 'chevron' (٨) would precede the downwards-pointing 'V' (٧), before I got used to it.

For Allah's sake, you already have to remember that Arabic numbers are written from left to right - unlike letters, which go from right to left - and you have to deal with ٦ being a six instead of seven. Remembering that ٧ comes before ٨ isn't that hard. And if you have trouble remembering the Arabic numeral for 9 (٩), you should probably give up learning languages right now.

Hokkien greetings

Bear with me

In Thailand, I found it pretty easy to memorise greetings for different times of the day by visualising different outlandish characters in sequence.

Good morning (sa-wat-dii bon-chow) was a guy in a poncho

Good afternoon (sa-wat-dii tawn-baai) was this girl from school who was famously a tomboy (I wonder what happened to him/her - maybe they ended up in Thailand too)

Good evening (sa-wat-dii tawn-yen) was a French onion (it's pronounced like 'd'onion')

Hokkien greetings aren't quite as straightforward (oh, so that was straightforward? Gotcha).

The best I could do was:

早安 Good morning (hoh tsa kih) is a guy waving at The Shredder, a.k.a. Oroku Saki, of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fame

午安 Good afternoon (hoh ampoh) is Bangkok's Hua Lamphong train station... because it sounds kind of similar

晚安 Good evening (hoh ah mih) is a guy waving at Amy, this slightly mentally ill but beautiful girl I briefly went out with. Because I myself am clearly the picture of sanity.

Bonus madness:

How are you? (dih hoh boh) is a Jamaican homeless guy, because that racistly sounds a bit like that

Good bye (tsai hwei) is Raphael of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fame, waving goodbye with his sais. A bit irresponsible.

There you go, students. Now you have all the borderline mentally ill material you need to go out and make an ass of yourself in more languages than ever before!

Maybe I shouldn't learn these strange local sounds at all. It would only slow things down and lead to frustration and embarrassment if I struggle through some foreign phrase rather than using the English we all know. Besides, if I speak Chinese to a Chinese-Malaysian, how are they supposed to improve their English? If anything, my gobbledygook is going to make them forget how to speak Chinese in the first place.

Yes; better to be lazy and shout things louder if these funny foreigners don't understand.

Novel progress: 3,521 words (7.0%)


  1. I want my money back for this language course. I have no idea what's happening in any language any more.

    I hope people find this useful information by searching for 'learning Malaysian' in a popular search engine. I've had a few hits for 'learning Indian' on my similarly informative post and like to feel that I've really helped a few travellers.

  2. I wrote the Arabic one ages ago and figured I should cover other local languages in the spirit of multiculturalism, but this one finally destroyed me.

    Maybe there'll be some hits from strange and horny Trek fans searching 'Deanna Troi tomboy semi-erect French todger' or something.

  3. Turns out I'm not the only Google hit for that :|

  4. Now, that is impressive! I was fascinated how you guys carry a convo back in Bangkok as it appears how smart you are, but learning languages? Well, I know it should be common to all travelers even for some few words from different countries, but hey! This seems like you're learning it all in advance lessons?! What the hell is going on? You wanna be a linguist? Not bad. That will add more handsome points to you though...lol. Seriously, I'm not kidding at that last bit.

  5. What will really get me handsome points is this beard I'm growing (now that I'm pretending to be a writer again).

  6. daveee it's me (if you still remember you subang jaya friend) :D where is the post about the tallest pencil? did you managed to have a look at it? hahaha

  7. Hi! I haven't experienced it yet, but I won't leave Malaysia without seeing it. My life would be incomplete.

    I'll pass through SJ some time - but right now I'm on Tioman Island, and don't want to be anywhere else.

  8. oh so you think having beard's handsome hey? hmmm... i'm curious how it would look like on your baby face. I saw oliver's beard on facebook though, like full grown (this time i think he gave up shaving it with style), but still the same, just look a little older than he is. all good.

  9. Somehow Oliver makes it look good. It looks rubbish on my baby face, I shaved it off.

  10. I got really excited about the beard chat until I got to your last post. Then I saw that was nine days ago. I picked a rubbish time to not have internet access for ages. I hope you've regrown your beard in that time; I don't think I've shortened mine since I left Thailand. It's looking terrific.

  11. Either my razor's gone faulty or the replacement batteries I bought are rubbish (dodgy electronics for sale in South East Asia? It seems unlikely) so I'm just letting nature take over again. I'll pay some barber to slice it off if I meet a sexy girl (in South East Asia? It seems inevitable).