I was reading Roy Porter’s Enlightenment in McDonald’s, savouring the sublime solitude after a long day being in the beck and call of KFH’s residents. Despite how much I liked this historian’s premise (18th century England!) and his creative alliterative writing style, I couldn’t help getting distracted by the family of six sitting two tables beside me.
It is not because of their daughter who was squealing for ten minutes, but more so because of the family’s interaction. To be more precise, their conversation and the languages involved in it.
This family was a Chinese family consisting of the dad, the mom, three sons probably between the ages of five to ten, and the toddler with the shrieking voice. What surprised me most was that the children were switching languages back and forth from Mandarin to English with such ease and fluency.
They were not speaking “rojak”, a term Malaysians used when people string a few languages — usually Hokkien, Cantonese, Mandarin, Malay, English, or Tamil expressions — into one meaningful sentence. “Bahasa rojak” or “rojak language” has gained its notoriety as it has affected the community’s ability of speaking one sentence fluently in one specified language without mixing it with a jumble of words imported from other languages. But, interestingly, to some, this phenomenon is seen as an accidental symbol of national identity, just like what some Singaporeans feel about Singlish (a colloquial language that was born from crossbreeding Malay, Hokkien, Mandarin and English). I, however, think that using rojak expressions is a disgrace to the language, but since I’m guilty of such expressions myself, I’ll not discuss this here.
Back to the family, they (parent-child, child-child) were speaking to each other fluently in two languages. When the toddler’s already-loud yelling reached a crescendo, her dad had to take her out of the restaurant to calm her down. Upon that, her older ten-year-old brother, looking at his younger brothers, said with a smirk, “Oh, she’s so angry. Don’t you think that she looks pretty when she’s angry?” I almost laughed at that.
Then, when the dad came back with a much quieter and satisfied daughter who was slurping at ice-cream (which I consider a bribe. I think it is not a good thing to reward the child for being naughty, but well, I’m not her parent.), the family launched into a conversation in Mandarin, which my ill-equipped self couldn’t comprehend.
Most of you might be thinking what is so special about this. It is not like they were speaking in five languages, and most Malaysian and Singaporean families are bi-/tri-lingual. But, the simplicity and spontaneity of the scene I saw just surprised me. I was envious of them.
It must be nice to grasp at least two languages as if they are your native languages. Naturally because of my education, I can boast that I am a bilingual with the ability to speak Malay and English. In actual fact, however, I speak solely English at home, at work, at school, and all other occasions. The only time I speak Malay is when I’m speaking to the Malay cleaners, stall vendors, or the Malaysian immigration officers. My Malay is okay, but not my native language (though it is on paper).
I read once somewhere — I forgot whether it is a fiction or a biography — of a woman who can speak seven languages fluently. As a child, her father insisted that the entire family spoke different languages on different days during dinner. Mondays would be French, Russian on Tuesdays, and this roulette of languages continues ending with English on Sundays. It must be nice to do that too.
If only I’m more talented in the art of mastering languages, I would be… a linguist for the United Nations, getting high wages to travel everywhere. I think those chefs and explorers on television are the luckiest people in the world. They get to travel to new places, meet new people, experience different cultures, eat unique local cuisines, and get paid. Ah, if only….