penang

Language, Lah?!

I’ve loved words for a long time now. I love to toss them around, play with them, rearrange them, tuck them away in places where no one can find them, and then sometimes, wipe them all away. I don’t claim to be good at it by any stretch of imagination, but it’s what keeps me alive and observant and mindful. Scattered across note books and blogs are hasty notes and long treatises where I observe, feel, question, dig deep, battle myself, battle the world, be grateful, be confused, be joyful.

But, only in English.

I can speak my native tongue Kannada fairly well, but for whatever reason, I cannot read, write or think very well in it.

Although I’ve studied it for a long time in school, I was humbled by Hindi in Pune, when my notion of “language does not matter when you move across countries” was slowly but surely turned on its head. I struggled for two full years and was just starting to wrap my head around it (around this time, there were a few thoughts that first made their presence felt in Hindi; it is said one is most fluent in the language that one thinks in, and I have to admit that this alarmed me that I would lose it in English!), when it was time to move again.

And now, hello Bahasa Melayu.

Penang’s isn’t a melting pot, it is more like what Shashi Tharoor calls “a vibrant thaali”, with each community retaining its little space and yet contributing its essence to society. The uniting thread that binds these various ethnicities and religions together is their common language heritage, Bahasa Melayu. Drawing heavily from Sanskrit and Tamil, the two classical languages of India, it uses the Roman script and hence is easy to read without having to worry about a written layer of abstraction between the language and the newcomer.

This time around, I was VERY aware of the language vector when I moved, knowing fully well by now that dear ol’ English is not of much use in large parts of the world. However, I don’t have a deep passion to learn a new language from scratch, and I also harbour a deep insecurity that I am too old and/or too incapable of learning even the basic functional terms in a new language. The former I can’t do much about, but the latter I can. Now is a great chance to push my limits, especially since I don’t have the added complication of others expecting me know the language (as it happened with Hindi, and I buckled under that pressure). It’s time to challenge myself to learn at least a few basic workaday technicalities of Bahasa, a chance I missed by a large mindless margin in Pune while wallowing in Hindi denial.

What have I learnt so far?

The economy of words. In English, hah. Minimal English to convey my meaning. And just THAT has been a glorious revelation. I decided not to use that lesson in this post, though :)

“Make a right at the signal, please” is now “go right, go right”.
“You can stop right here” is now “stop here”.
“Did you call me?” is now “You call?!”.

Like with Hindi, but for different reasons now, I fear I will lose it in English. But this time around, I’m prepared (or so I think), and I’m learning where to compromise and where not to. I’m ready to let a few more strange words hop in over my lowered guard and play with the English ones, challenging me along yet another vector that travel has taught me to revere.

keep-calm-and-study-bahasa-melayu

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