Friday, August 7, 2009

Polyglot Penang

A commercial establishment in Penang that,
as can be seen by its signage, caters to
a clientele that speaks Malay, Tamil,
at least one Chinese dialect or English

A joke about languages I heard some years back goes like this: "What's someone who speaks three languages called?" "Tri-lingual." "What about someone who speaks two languages?" "Bi-lingual." "How about someone who speaks only one language?" "American!"

Although Hong Kong is a predominantly Cantonese-speaking society, one also can get by in Asia's World City knowing just English. At the same time, and increasingly, one hears Mandarin being spoken on the street, in MTR trains and stations and elsewhere by people ranging from tourists to business folks.

Still, for all of the Big Lychee also being home and work place for a diversity of linguistic groups (including those whose ancestors hail from Shanghai, Swatow and elsewhere in China besides the Pearl River Delta, India, Nepal, Britain, Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan and elsewhere), it still can make for a shock to return home to Penang -- where I'm currently visiting for a week -- and see a truly multi-lingual (as well as -cultural) society in glorious action.

On a visual level, there are all these commercial signs in different languages (and scripts). And even though the road signs tend to only be in the national language, the names on them (e.g., Lebuh Macalister (Macalister Road), Jalan Ramanathan (Ramanathan Road) and Jalan Lim Lean Teng (Lim Lean Teng Road)) bear witness to Penang's history being multi-lingual and -ethnic.

But whereas written forms often stand separate from one another, the ears will discern how poly-lingual and -glot things really can get over in this part of the world. For one thing, Penangites tend to be like other Malaysians in having a tendency -- propensity even -- to switch languages mid-conversation (sometimes even mid-sentence).

For another, what with Penang being an Hokkien majority state -- in fact, the only such linguistic entity -- in Malaysia, it is quite likely that ethnic Malay, Indian (usually Tamil but also such as Sikh or Ceylonese) and Eurasian Penangites can and will converse with an ethnic Hokkien Penangite in Hokkien as well as the more usual (in Malaysia) Malay or English.

Thus it is that if the joke I told at the beginning of this entry were told about Penangites, it'd have to be reversed -- except since a fair few Penang folks actually know more than "just" three languages, it'd have to go as follows: "What's a person who knows one language called?" "Mono-lingual." "Two languages?" "Bi-lingual". "Three or more languages?" "Penangite"... ;b


hcpen said...

oh true how true..lucky u..,bck in penang..remember to eat all the good good yah ..i'm sure u dun need any reminding, hehehe..on my hk trip, altho i liked some of the hk food, i still think hk street food, esp cha chan teng stuff is literally quite unappetising to say the personal opinion only lah..cannot compare to good ole' penang food..

Glenn, kenixfan said...

Okay, as a dumb American who can barely speak a little French, should I be offended at your joke at our expense? America is wonderfully multicultural but the size of the country seems to force people to assimilate faster than in, say, European countries from what I've seen.

Your post reminds me why I love what little I've had of your country's cuisine. Just looking at a plate of nasi lemak is a little lesson in geography...for a dumb American like me, LOL!.

Anonymous said...

I love when people switch languages mid-sentence. I think that is so cool!

I'm a big supporter of cultural mixing, and nothing makes me happier than being in a place where that is the norm.

YTSL said...

Hi hcpen --

Have to say that my major activity back here in Penang thus far HAS been eating. For just the major meals alone: how's this to make you drool? Perak Lane mee hoon, curry mee, nasi kandar, bak kut teh (not strictly Penang but there's a stall on Gottlieb Road selling Klang bak kut teh), Hokkien mee, chicken rice and lam mee. Oh, and for breakfast today, it should be: char koay teow! ;b

Hi Glenn --

I can see how some Americans could be offended by the joke but quite a few I have told it to have seen some truth in it. The last time I remember telling the joke was to someone in the US who asked me if I was American who assumed I was that because I can speak English...

Re your comments re assimilation: hmm... am not sure how true that is. But it does seem that whereas in many countries (in Europe as well as Asia and Africa), learning a foreign language is the norm at primary school, in the US, learning a foreign language even at university seems so challenging as well as a novelty.

And teehee at your love of nasi lemak as I've yet to have that -- or even think of having that yet! -- here! :b

Hi duriandave --

I love cultural mixing but have to admit to sometimes admitting that the whole world would agree to speak just one language! As it stands, even while being comfortable in a few languages, having studied a few others and am slowly -- but hopefully surely -- absorbing another through living in Hong Kong, I still often find myself rueing that I don't know more languages and/or a language better... :S

ewaffle said...

Penang seems to be linguistically multicultural in perhaps the only way that really works--people use the language(s) they feel comfortable with. I think the switching from between (or even among) languages in a conversation is very interesting--using the language with has the word that best indicates your meaning.

I can read/speak/understand some Italian but agree entirely that many Americans are not only ignorant of other languages but also happy to remain that way. Interestingly enough the language requirement in high schools and middle schools in many upper-class districts now includes Mandarin. It is generally very popular--parents want their kids to learn what is becoming an essential tool for commerce.

One seemingly irresistable change that is occurring is that more and more American citizens and residents speak Spanish as their first language or are bi-lingual. While this is to the great dismay of those who don't like change of any type it doesn't seem they will be successful in trying to hang onto an "English only" society--no more than, say, King Canute with the waves.

The sign that illustrates this post is a perfect example of how it should be. The owner of the hairdressing establishment wants to appeal to as many potential customers as possible and assure them that they will feel welcomed no matter what language they speak. For the business person speaking and understanding the languages of the customer doesn't necessarily mean she will be successful but not doing so will almost surely lead to failure.

Lovely post, as usual.

YTSL said...

Hi ewaffle --

What a lovely set of comments from you -- really appreciate getting them and, also, agree with a lot of points you made.

To add a bit to them: yes, Penangites do things with such as language that are not mandated by the government -- in fact isn't particularly encouraged by it. Yet for all this, I think the Penangite way is the preferred way towards getting and maintaining societal harmony.

"Interestingly enough the language requirement in high schools and middle schools in many upper-class districts now includes Mandarin."

I have to confess to having taken Mandarin classes at age 9 and dropping out after just one year of doing so. I wish now I hadn't but at the time, it didn't feel useful and was ever so difficult to learn!

Talking (in English!) to a native Mandarin speaking friend who I befriended later in life, she laughed and suggested that I had been taught the language in absolutely the wrong way. Personally, I think the way to go is to teach them very young and not only in a fun way but in a way that seems to have meaning and purpose...

sbk said...

Another great photo, ytsl. Would love to see how they would cut my hair.

Please, if you have time during your visit, take more pictures of local Penang life as I think your readers would enjoy seeing them. Penang's multiculturalism is a treat for me to see. Food stall and food related pictures would be fun.

YTSL said...

Hi sbk --

Teehee re your wondering how they'd cut your hair. Probably not too badly -- as they'll be used to cutting curly hair (even while probably will exclaim re Caucasian hair being finer than most Asians').

And will do re taking more pictures of local Penang life -- though here's advance warning that I've not gone out too much this visit except to forage for food! ;S

Willow said...

I'm American and I'm not offended by that opening joke. ;) Most of my countrymen expect the rest of the world to speak English to them. That is, if the thought of venturing out of North America has ever occurred to them. haha.

YTSL said...

Hi Willow --

Am glad you're not offended by the joke. And hear, hear re your comments in general! :b