Role that languages play in our lives


Bishop Keen, flanked by his assistant Datuk Song Thian Eng (seated, fourth left) and headmaster of the primary school Chong Eng Nyuk, with the teachers, shown in this photo taken in 1955.

MOST of us have acquired our own mother tongue from the day we were born and were educated in either Bahasa Malaysia (BM), English or Mandarin.

In addition to that, the majority would also have opted to study another language; thus confirming the fact that we are almost always fluent in at least three languages.

This, in fact, is an anomaly for most parts of the world; throughout most of the rest of the world, the majority of nationals would only be able to communicate and understand one language unless they, as individuals, have also opted specifically to add on another medium, or they are, for instance, Italians growing up in the USA and need to learn English to become American citizens.

The ability to communicate in another language and not solely dependent on one’s mother tongue, have opened up and widened our perspective on the world, taught us a lot more of each other’s cultures and traditions, influenced our way of life and our personal attitudes, aptitudes and also created an openness and ability to respect different opinions and viewpoints.

I was born into a traditional Chinese family, whose dialect was Hokkien, and although my mother was Teochew, we were brought up speaking my father’s dialect.

By the age of six, in 1956, when I had enrolled in St Thomas’ Primary School, an Anglican Mission school with the teaching medium being solely in English, I begun to acquire a second language.

In the first photograph I am sharing here, taken in 1955, it shows the entire teaching staff of St Thomas’ primary and secondary schools, comprising an English Bishop, Father Keen who was the then-principal, and headmaster of the primary school Chong Eng Nyuk.

There were 15 female and 20 male teachers, of various nationals and racial composition – from England, Australia, India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Hong Kong; there were Caucasians, Indians, Chinese, Malays and Ibans.

This racial and nationality mix was to continue in our school till the early 1970s.

Today, the same photo of the schools’ teaching staff would look very different.

The second photo shows my Form 5’s ‘Class of 1967’ at St Thomas’ Secondary School, when English was still the medium. It would be just three more years later when BM took over.

The Form 5 boys of St Thomas’ Secondary School’s ‘Class of 1967’, with Canon Wellington (seated, fourth right) and Mohideen (seated, fourth left). The columnist could be seen on the sitting row, second left.

The Principal, Canon Lloyd Wellington, was New Zealander, and our form teacher J Mohideen, who was Indian and later, became a Malaysian.

My classmates were Chinese, Malays, Bidayuhs, Ibans, Indians and Eurasiasn. Again, a very different composition would exist today.

Looking back at age nine, in Primary 3, my school had added on lessons for us to learn Mandarin – for two classes of an hour each per week.

I believe that very few of us had even bothered with being attentive in class as it was just an optional second language at the time and not compulsory. Besides, we had one of the worst teachers we ever had – he was doubling up as an Arts teacher as well!.

I had never received a pass in that first year, so I opted out of it by the following year – for me , it was simply a waste of time.

BM was not available as a second language taught in my school till 1963 – the year when Sarawak became a part of Malaysia.

We were in Form 1 by then, and unfortunately, we were also delegated a BM teacher who was totally uninspired and contributed immensely to us not taking any interest in the subject at all.

A few years later when it became an essential subject to pass, we all had to take on additional adult night classes held at the Chung Hua School premises at Jalan Nanas, which was specifically tailored for non-Malay civil servants to attend.

We were rather amused that our fellow classmates were our parents’ peers!

Most of us who went to school around that time, for Form 5 to Form 6, between 1966 and 1971, were the ‘generation in transition’ when it was the twilight of English as the medium, with the slow integration of BM as the new medium of instruction.

To say that we were the British Empire’s ‘lost children’ might be somewhat of an exaggeration and yet, there we were.

A very high percentage went overseas, many to the UK, some to Australia and the USA, others to Singapore and further afield to continue their further education.

Not surprisingly, very few returned after having completed their studies and started their working lives anew as citizens of wherever they had spent their university days.

A handful had relocated to other countries.

I would always tell family and friends whenever they asked me for ‘any regrets in life’ that I might still harbour within myself – yes, I would have loved to be able to play a musical instrument, a piano or a guitar, and learn to speak and write Mandarin.

Not being able to speak Mandarin can be quite a hindrance, especially to a Chinese. There has been a sea change in the way that businesses have been conducted throughout the region in recent years.

I found that without being able to communicate in Mandarin with the new generation of those transacting businesses throughout the entire spectrum and within the arena of today’s business world, is becoming more and more difficult.

Up till the early 2000s, there was not much problem with using just dialect, ‘bazaar Malay’ and basic English in communication on a simple transaction like say, order a meal, ask to inspect an item of goods or seek a service of any kind.

Today, any Chinese lad or lassie minding the store in the bazaar or in the service industry below the age of 20 usually cannot speak dialect, would not be able to understand much Malay and is usually quite clueless in English – it is just Mandarin that passes his lips.

I would like to share a funny personal anecdote that occurred in the early 1980s, when I was still working in management at the local Toyota branch, when we had to entertain visiting top brass from Tokyo or Nagoya when they did visit us infrequently.

After dinner, we would usually bring them to the local nightclub, and this was at the Tokyo Nightclub (where the Fata Hotel is today).

In those days, which was the heyday of the timber boom and most of the ‘water trade’ (the term the Japanese had given the bar, pub and nightclub businesses) were ‘importing’ singers and hostesses from Taiwan and the Philippines, and they were all doing roaring businesses every night.

As usual, I would book my visitors the best-looking (and very expensive!) Taiwanese singers and hostesses – they could communicate well as most of them speak fluent Japanese.

For appearance’s sake, I would also book a hostess, not from Taiwan but from the Philippines, for myself.

My Japanese guests would ask me: why? My answer – she was the only one who could speak English!

Plus, it had also saved my company the extra entertainment expense as they actually charged a lot less by the hour!

Today, I regret not having taken my Mandarin lessons seriously; I had always blamed it on a bad teacher, but admittedly, the fault was fully mine.

If only I had been studious and able to communicate and understand Mandarin today, I would have benefitted so much more in all my dealings, personal or business-wise, with those who could only speak that language, in my many travels abroad, especially to China, Hong Kong, Singapore and even within Malaysia. That would have added a deeper dimension to an overall appreciation of place, history and circumstance.

I could also be able to understand the lyrics of the Chinese songs that I had listened to and loved since my boyhood; the popular ones of the 70s and 80s and not needing to read the subtitles of movies that I had loved like ‘Raise the Red Lantern’, ‘Lust, Caution’ and in the nuances of ‘The Last Emperor’, which was heavily subbed.

Hey – I could even read the original untranslated ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ and ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’!

The list is endless.

For those of you dear readers who know more than a third language, I take my hat off to you.

I am sure that you would have taken this ability and skill for granted as it would usually come as second nature, but you have added on an extraneous extension to your life.

You have lit up an entirely brave new world beyond and expanded your personal horizon – and I do salute you for that!

As for me, and at my age, I no longer need it for business, since I have retired – and certainly not for meeting and chatting up Taiwanese hostesses!

Happy singing – be it alone or in a group, stay safe, and keep the peace!