Everyone wants to believe that they are born with supernatural abilities that you would only find in the movies. However, because real life does not conform to the laws of Hollywood, we will make do with our ability to speak more than one language.
Although English is my mother language, I can speak Malay as well as I can read it.
It may not be a spectacular feat. However, you will be amazed at just how difficult it is to be fluent in another language. It is generally assumed that we have reached a certain level of artificial intelligence that we can translate almost any foreign language to the language we want with a click of a button. But, truthfully speaking, technologies will never be able to take the seats of human translators.
Even though today’s algorithms are evolving on their own in an effort to be more predictive and accurate during the translation process, they neglect language’s humanitarian elements such as double meanings and the concept of puns or wordplay. Such inability introduces noise in the communication that paints the original message in a different light.
I spent more than a decade sharpening all four–listening, speaking, writing, and reading–Malay language skills. Currently, I can start and end a conversation about any subject without breaking a sweat. By possessing a talent to be fluent in more than one language, it occurred to me that linguistic wisdom pains only half of the story.
Below are the lessons I have learned from bilingual education:
1. It tests the limits of your patience.
Nowadays, it is not hard to come across a language course that seemingly promises you that you will be able to master a language in a short amount of time. Sorry to the bearer of bad news, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Truth be told, being fluent in another language takes up a hell lot of your time, notwithstanding the mental energy required to remember all the human elements that come with the language. Moreover, despite the abstract nature of language, it is no different from an organism; it not only lives inside us but also undergoes constant change and evolution. That being said, you are bound to learn new things, and you should view this enthusiastically. To be fluent in another language is a gargantuan feat, but once you accomplish it, you will be proud that you have done it.
2. It is true when they say, “do not judge a book by its cover.”
I spent most of my life living in a habitat that has a sign at the entrance which says, “English only.” While I was cocooned inside this English-speaking bubble, I have always been attracted to the notion of exploring and understanding different cultures before I study abroad for the first time at the age of eighteen.
While I was pursuing my education overseas, people typically ask me in astonishment as to how I was able to speak Malay. Because literally none of my loved ones speaks the national language and I look like some random dude from China (I am a Malaysian Chinese, by the way), I believe it is hard for outsiders to believe that I know my Malay even though I breathe English ninety per cent of the time.
However, this inclination for or against one person or group, especially in a way considered unfair, travels back and forth. For example, I once talked to my teammate in Malay about my plans to return to my home country upon graduation while his friend of a different nationality was right beside him. I thought his friend would not understand what we were saying. Then, he pulled a John Cena surprise on me by speaking to me in Malay to express his views about my plans. I was gobsmacked when I saw it with my own eyes and listen to the Malay words coming out of his mouth.
That experience served as a self-reminder that it is inappropriate to come up with assumptions, and one should strive to eliminate as many biases and stereotypes as he or she may possess. Why? The reason being you will never know who may also be bilingual.
3. You can have more than one option to get things done.
When I was in college, I learned that I was not good at dealing with numbers and equations. Hence, I told myself then that I do not want to be a mathematician. To this day, my mathematics are all over the place.
After giving some time to think about it, one of the reasons why I struggled so much to master the subject is because, in mathematics, there was only one path to the answer. A lot of individuals– myself included–do not think in a straightforward manner. That means our thinking process is like a lump of tangled thread, messy and sometimes, requires some time for it to untangle itself and return to some linear form.
Languages are not like that. There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to using the language, which is one beautiful aspect of any language. For instance, “berat sama dipikul, ringan sama dijinjing” and “bukit sama didaki, lurah sama dituruni” carry the same definition, just phrased differently. Speaking a language is akin to drawing; rely on your linguistic creativity to convey your message across freely without rules.
4. We live in a small world.
Personally, the best thing about being bilingual is that it enables me to expand my social network.
When you are fluent in another language, you see the world differently. You will realise that the world is bigger than you can possibly imagine. In a blink of an eye, you can channel your attention towards all the things we have in common and put aside our differences in order to live harmoniously as one.
For example, never did I imagine I would come across a Malay-speaking nurse when I was doing my Covid-19 swab test overseas days before I boarded my one-way ticket back home. Bear in mind, her national language is English, and she spoke to me in Malay because she saw that my passport was issued by the government of Malaysian. When I asked her how she could speak Malay fluently, she said that “as beings on this small planet, we share the responsibility to embrace the same language.” I cannot express just how valid that statement is.
Final 2¢: The lessons are endless.
I can write more about what I have learned as a bilingual, but I do not want to turn this article into a book. Hence, I just wanted to share with the world some of the biggest realisations I came across while I was breathing another language.
However, I should warn you right here and now: learning to become fluent in another language is just like consuming your favourite ice cream – you just keep going until you consumed the whole ice cream tub, and then you continue by grabbing another. For example, I have just started to learn Mandarin by understanding how to manage the basic pronunciation and picking up some vocabularies, only to discover that the learning process has no end in sight.
It is going to be another gruelling adventure. On the bright side, however, it is an intriguing one.