Friday, August 15, 2008

Fun and Benefit in Learning Foreign Languages

Being raised in a village in Penang brings many blessings! One of them is the opportunity to grow up with children of different races. From our Indian friends we learnt to speak some Tamil and since Malay is being taught in the schools, we would switch to speaking Bahasa Malaysia with our Malay villagers.

Hence, it was quite natural that when I continued my tertiary education after my O'levels, I decided to take up French. A formidable task for someone who had never heard a single word of French in Penang! I remember I was almost on the brink of tears during the first few lessons when I could not really make out the sounds, and had difficulty in pronunciation. All I could hear was rhythm and music in the new Romance language! Gradually I began to make out the sound and to understand the grammatical structure. I tried to watch some French movies with English subtitles. I guess learning a new language is like a child learning music via Suzuki method. Suzuki is not concerned with a child learning to read notes.....he is more keen on the child listening to music and to train his ears first. Reading notes comes in a little later.

This is why I have been encouraging my tenant, Jasmin, to watch Chinese movies. While he can read the English subtitles, he can also listen to the Mandarin being spoken. It does not matter if we initially do not understand the words. Tune in to the language first. This is what I do too when I watch Hindi movies. I remember the first word I picked up was "achar" (meaning good in Hindi) because it was used so often. The word also reminds me of my favourite "achar" which is pickles in our Malay/Nonya/Hokkien dialect.

When I applied the little Korean that I had learnt while working as a secretary in a Korean company, I was pleasantly surprised how it immediately broke the ice with the shopkeepers and sales staff in Seoul. They would often give me Korean souvenirs and it warmed my heart to see their smiles and grin stretching from ear to ear!

I remember a pleasant experience when I went on a camping tour in Europe. As the appointed cook, I went to the nearby grocery and spoke French with the couple in Nice. The husband immediately went to his garden and plucked 30 baby roses for me and my friend! They told us that it was the first time a Chinese spoke to them in their mother tongue, and even complimented me on my good pronunciation! I remember my friend and I laughing all the way back to the campsite. We had to gather enough beer bottles to put our stalks of baby roses in water.

Now that I am an agent, I find it tremendously useful to be able to communicate with different races. I remember that when my client asked me to contact the African tenant so as to show potential buyers his conservation shop house, I was somewhat intimidated when the tenant burst out vehemently, "What? The owner wants to sell this place? Just after I have spent $200,000/0 to renovate and apply all the necessary approval? No way, I will allow any viewing!" I assured him that whoever bought over would have to continue the tenancy with him. Then I saw some posters of Nigeria and suddenly burst out, "Habariya mualimo wango?!" (How are you, my teacher? (as a form of respect.) He suddenly looked at me and soon burst out laughing.

"Oh my gosh! Where did you learn Swahili?"

"Some Nigerian students in my Canadian university taught me the language."

"Sure, sure. No problem. You can bring the buyers any time. Just give me a call." He handed me his name card.

I have been wanting to buy a Hindi/English dictionary. I happened to pass by a shop in Cuff Road and saw some dictionaries on display. However, they were all Tamil/English dictionary. I asked the shopkeeper for one in Hindi. With him was a friend with quite fair complexion. "You really can speak Tamil and Hindi ah?", he asked somewhat doubtful. "Say something in Tamil and Hindi", he challenged me.

"Kadavur unai arsi vardipar". (God bless you in Tamil).

"Bhagwan apakah bala kareh". (God bless you in Hindi).

"Where are you from?" I asked, curious about his unusual English accent.


"Promeisualeh arsis dinu huncha" (God bless you in Nepali)

"Oh you can speak Nepali too!" he grinned. "I'm so surprised.!"

"I can sing some Nepali songs too. Want to listen?"

I proceeded to sing him the song I learnt while on a mission trip to Nepal some years ago.

"Please give me your name card. When my Nepali friends want to look for property, I contact you, ok?" he volunteered.

On National Day, I was at the market buying some fruits. I had a party for some friends at my home to celebrate the nation's birthday. Suddenly one Indian man
asked the stallholder if the mangosteens were really nice.

I spoke to him in Hindi, Tamil, Malay and Chinese. He smiled, obviously delighted.
The stallholder asked him if I were really speaking Hindi and Tamil, and he shook his head. (When Indians shake their heads, the answer is affirmative).

"Sorry Sir. Today is National Day, so I have to speak to you in four languages," I smiled. Somehow the sky seems brighter than usual!

My dear readers, try and learn a new language. It helps to break the ice. It is really not difficult. It will also add fun and colour to your life.

Gan Chau

1 comment:

Hajar said...

I couldn't agree more to that. I grew up conversing mostly in English and Malay but since I studied in a Chinese kindergarten, I have come to comprehend most of the commonly used Mandarin words. Although I can't converse fluently, recently I took the initiative by enrolling in language classes. Besides that, the basic knowledge I have in Arabic, Japanese and Korean had helped me a lot especially at work and during travel occasions. Indeed, learning a new language offers endless opportunities.