March 18, 2013, by Stephen Pihlaja

Speak to me

In 2003, when I first went to Japan, I had only intended to stay for a year and then return to the US to do an MFA in Creative Writing. I ended up staying five years, in part because I became infatuated with the language and obsessed with becoming, as much as I could, ‘fluent’.

It didn’t begin that way: I had studied no Japanese before going and spent my first weeks in the country not even trying: I couldn’t remember a single phrase to save my life. After a month and a half of thumbing through a rather useless Japanese book (Japanese for Busy People, but I wasn’t all that busy and there wasn’t that much Japanese), I figured I either needed to get serious or give up.

So I got a proper textbook, one that I understood, and began to study hard, sitting under the trees of Ohori Park in central Fukuoka. Life changed dramatically. Suddenly, I could ask for things: I could function and understand and explore. And as I began to acquire bits and pieces, my interest in Japan, in Japanese, and the Japanese grew.

Now, ten years later, I am having the same experience in Malaysia, and in the same way as in Japan, my first attempts to study the language have added an intense amount of colour to the world here. My first sentence in Malay was, ‘Ini masalah kecil,’ It’s a small problem: a joke answer to any question. Malay, unlike Japanese, is not rigid and strict, but loose and playful. I’ve had fun with the administrative assistants here who call me ‘Doctor Bebek‘: ‘bebek’ (duck) being the affectionate term for the small motorbike I ride.

Standing behind of the house, talking across the alley with one of the many Aunties in our neighbourhood, I struggle through a series of phrases I learned at class: This is Mia. That’s a door. This is a key to the door. This is the door’s key. How are you? and she listens earnestly, nodding, but obviously not understanding me.

And another snapshot of learning: ordering my food the other day, I was attempting to ask for half as much rice, but had forgotten the word for ‘half’. I did, however, remember the structure for making fractions, so I asked for ‘one over two’, essentially. This confused the woman and another guy at the food stall, who kept insisting on responding to me in English, came up and took out two plates, ‘He wants the rice on two plates.’ No, I said, finally in English, dejected, Half.

These little failures, however, are cumulative and you remember the things you mess up much better than the ones you get right. You just have to push through the feelings of intense fear and weakness. There is this urban myth that people either are or are not good at languages. I think it’s less about language aptitude and more about being outgoing and willing to humiliate yourself, repeatedly and persistently, in pursuit of acquiring the language. You can fail, you will fail: fail now, or learn nothing.

And in the failure, you slowly gather cultural capital with those around you. I tell my students week after week, Form is function; function is form. What you say is embedded in how you say it. When you say, How are you? in Malay, rather than English, you do something different.

I am, of course, still a fat white man: our teacher says, ‘Don’t pronounce the final consonant or you’ll give away that you’re a foreigner.’ I look around the table of students and think, ‘The final consonant is the least of our problems.’ Still, a fat white man struggling in Malay is better than a fat white man demanding his way in English.

Language is not a Sausurrean LAN cable from one head to another: it is phatic. It is always phatic. And we can’t deconstruct our or any other culture until we can deconstruct the language. It is the first step. And if I can perform some submission in my broken Malay, this is not only a first step, but also a first step in the right direction.

(photo of Ohori Koen in Fukuoka, Japan courtesy of Chris Harber)

Dr Stephen Pihlaja is Assistant Professor of Language and Literature in the School of English at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus

Posted in Malaysia