Empire made English my mother tongue—and the only one I have any real dominion over. It is the first language of my mother, who is from an Anglo-Indian minority, and the only language in which I spoke to my father. Educated during colonialism, he spoke English at home, more so than the Malayalam of his ancestors who came to Malaysia generations before, and Malay to the outside world. Chinese dialects and Tamil also formed part of his daily speech, as it did for most Malaysians, then and now.
The sound of my own English is now a mix of the London where I lived until my mid-twenties and the Americanisms of the decade-plus spent in the US, with the songlike base of my original Malaysian English. Easily these are all different languages; once at a friend’s home in Brooklyn, I asked for a “plaster” for a bleeding cut on my finger and was directed to the hardware shop (or rather “store”) for what they thought was a request for construction supplies. Still, a mother tongue of English(es) and a jumbled accent form a partial biography. My abandoned languages, however, are an alternative history, largely of laziness, in and out of language classrooms.
I grew up exposed to multiple Asian languages, but these never seemed special in any way. They were merely methods of communication in different spaces—the night market, the noodle stall, and my grandmother’s house. The nature of global capitalism and culture placed English and European languages as the foreign ones, the ones that permitted access to culture and art with some mastery, or at least a tiny grasp of. Even what some might insist on terming pure English literature (say Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, which I found wretchedly difficult at school in the UK) contained dialogue in French. Absolutely untranslated, from my recollection. The expectation of knowing was placed on the reader—a stance which I don’t disagree with. I suppose this pursuit of languages, half-hearted as it was most times, was in the service of unending curiosity, and wanting to read and understand.
In the early 2000s, in the UK, there was an ad campaign for The Economist that went: “On the Edge of a Conversation. One of the Loneliest Places on Earth.” Maybe because I saw this ad every day on the Tube and was influenced, I never wanted to be there in that lonely, edgy place—in any language. I was—and am—happy to be in some participation, however minimal, in the conversation with broken language skills.
Arabic, to me, is not truly “foreign.” Islam’s history in Malaysia brought language from the Arab world; Malay was once written in a version of Arabic script, Jawi. My own Arabic study began during my undergraduate degree. I planned to focus on the influences of the Middle East on Southeast Asian politics, and taking Modern Standard Arabic seemed smart. I fancied being able to draw the script one day. A few weeks in, I knew I would flunk out, and switched to learning Egyptian without credit. This served me during my many trips to Sinai, where as a brown person who could pass for Egyptian, no one assumed that I didn’t speak Arabic. While this was thrilling, with the intense complications of the language and my minimal discipline, it became clear that Arabic was a lost cause. Still, it was riveting to consider the language’s possibilities, especially once I encountered Nizar Qabbani and Mahmoud Darwish. I misplaced my minimal Arabic but not my infatuation with its shimmering poetry. Recently, I came to the work of Najwan Darwish, translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, and started wondering again how it all might read in the original.
Bahasa Malaysia: PRESENT
I have no memory of not speaking Bahasa Malaysia. I have always spoken it at home to the women who cared for us as children, in markets and shops, and words like hujan (rain) crept into my mother’s English. Malay was acquired so naturally that I barely think of it as another language. It was the language of my first years of official school, and the first I had to translate—for my mother. We pored over school forms, figuring out words that she hadn’t come across and that I had yet to learn. My father died the year before I entered school, so he wasn’t around to translate.
Malay, much like everything about Malaysia, is a Pacific Rim fusion of multiplicities with minimalist grammar, devoid of gender, and open to additions (see: Manglish). None of this was clear to me or fully appreciated until I was well into adulthood. Having operated in zero gender (Malay), medium-use gender (English), and super gendered (Spanish) languages, I am happy to honor what the situation calls for. Indeed, while Malaysian society is not unproblematic (including on the theme of gender), I am most grateful for the constancy of this otherness (and having a foreign mother, this gratitude is certainly personal, too) that always required navigating difference, which became instinctive. The ways in which Malaysia—and the bridge that the Malay language provides—is an original, beautiful, and difficult example of #diversity calls to mind Malaysia Boleh, a slogan rustled up for a beverage ad campaign ahead of the 1993 SEA Games. It translates literally to “Malaysia can,” and was intended to herald the country’s accomplishments.
While the slogan has taken on a deprecating and ironic connotation, I hold dearly on to its “no problem” or “can do” significance, as far as language learning is concerned. Malay made it normal to be multilingual, to take interest in and want to bridge, and to never assume that I will be spoken to in the language I am most comfortable with. The further away I have moved, the more I’ve realized that this aspect is at the essence of my identity as someone who is able to navigate many differences, (including language), if not always well, with some degree of success.
Chinese Dialects (Also Tamil and Manglish): ABSENT-ISH
Under C, I add Tamil, Malaysia’s other main minority language. Due to their location between India and China, colonization, and immigration, Malaysians are natural polyglots. Most are bilingual, if not trilingual, at minimum. They speak Bahasa Malaysia, English, Chinese (Cantonese, Hokkien, Mandarin, and other tongues), and languages from the subcontinent like Tamil and Punjabi. Not to mention languages like the indigenous Kadazandusun, the Malay-Portuguese melange of Kristang, and regional Malay dialects like the mellifluous Kedahan. At school, we had extracurricular classes in Tamil and Mandarin. I attempted the latter; my younger brother, the former. I remember the adorable squiggles of Tamil on his notebooks; but of my first abandoned language, I can’t recall much. An early cincai (slipshod from Chinese) effort at learning, but I still have enough to manage shopping and swearing.
Also, born of the country’s linguistic rojak (a tossed sweet, spicy, crunchy salad), is Manglish, a remix of the country’s tongues. My favorite of this lexicon: Manja, which as a verb means “to pamper” or “to baby” or “to spoil.” As an adjective, it means playing cute, generally, or the coquette, romantically, for attention. In my personal remastered idiom, it has functioned as a noun like “darling.” There is no emotional equivalent in English.
French, which is most Anglophones’ default idea of a foreign language, was my first “real” foreign language. My mother had taken classes at the Alliance Française and hired a tutor for me. My only memory of those classes is of the tutor falling asleep and snoring as I wondered how to alert him that I’d finished my conjugations. The classes and the Arc-en-ciel textbooks soon went into the languages dustbin. I suppose if I had kept up with it, my reading of, for example, my teenage obsession, Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, my adult curiosity of contemporary discourse (say Michel Houellebecq v. Mahir Guven), and appreciation of mind-bendingly brilliant works such as Brice Matthieussent’s Revenge of the Translator (trans. by Emma Ramadan) would hit differently. Alas, we’re back to that lassitude.
In my first job, I wrote about European Union development funding, which required regular travel to Italy. Alone in Milan, Turin, and the backroads of Tuscany, I bumbled through interactions—including less savory ones like being propositioned for paid sex in train stations when la bella figura dulled for me—with a few words and gesticulations (though not the middle finger in the aforementioned uglier ones).
Back in London, I bought a tape by Michel Thomas, the legendary instructor, who said that a language was the most “alien” thing a person could learn. He promised no note-taking, no memorizing, and immediate results. I was soon able to shuffle around a handful of words into sentences and then, miraculously, conversations. I didn’t have plans for fluency but was tickled to converse in hip boutiques in Navigli when I had downtime, and to appreciate the (non-commercial) flirting of boys. This did not progress further than the three hours of dulcet, authoritative voice instruction from Mr. Thomas. A year in, I left my job and Italian receded. My in-Italian lit reading wish list includes Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and more contemporary output by Italian PoC such as Igiaba Scego’s Beyond Babylon. I will again restate my gratitude to respective translators Frances Frenaye, William Weaver, and Aaron Robertson for making these titles possible for me and others in English.
My interest in Russian began with, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” which I read in an abridged Anna Karenina at my school library sometime before I was twelve. The sentence’s second part was a portal to not just familial unhappiness, but also Russia, the Cold War, and bewilderment at what kind of language would produce such a truth so casually. This led to an exchange trip to Moscow as the 1990s closed out and perestroika was in force. My Russian did not progress until my host mother, an economist, sat down with a dictionary and had me describe Malaysia’s economy. I understood what it meant to translate thoughts (painstaking) and communicate in another tongue (rough but also exciting). When I returned, I continued with it and ended up with a GCSE B grade, which involved writing a basic essay in Cyrillic.
Since I have forgotten how to decipher the script, I wouldn’t be able to read my own essay today, but my adoration of Russian literature remains. I return every few years to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which with its multiple plots of Jesus’s crucifixion from the POV of Pontius Pilate, and the Devil arriving in Soviet-era Moscow—plus its meditations on books, censorship, and love—never grows old, particularly in our evermore surreal times.
Spanish: PRESENT, FULLY
Until 2016, I possessed New York City subway Spanish (¿Dónde está el baño? Gracias, etc). That year, I was accepted into an artists’ residency in Oaxaca, Mexico, so I turned to Duolingo. After the eight weeks, I would leave, and the language, which I had a passing interest in, would be forgotten as per previous ones. In a surprise turn, I returned to live in Mexico (because it stole my heart) eighteen months later.
Upon which, I started from scratch with lessons with a Mexican woman who mostly acquired her English in Australia. Ser/estar, the dual “to-be” verbs, boggled in their temporal variations, but I conjugated them and others in notebook after notebook as a meditative endeavor, which distracted from a relationship that was then fracturing. When we arrived at the future tense, I decided to stop. I would let the language seep into me, inspired by my favorite autodidact James Baldwin. He apparently spoke no French when he arrived in Paris but ended up giving interviews in the language on French TV. It cannot be said that I lack language ambition.
By the end of that year, which coincided with the end of said relationship, I took the bus to Mexico City to forget. I spent days listening to banda star Julión Álvarez’s La Sonrisa Obligatoria with its particularly melancholic tuba on the projector screen in an elegant townhouse that I had lucked into subletting. Julión got me in Spanish. Nunca levanté la mano / Para hablar de soledad. But I didn’t feel like speaking in any language.
As 2019 began, I began going to pilates classes and a boxing gym. I blundered through the moves while passively absorbing the words: atrás de la cama, cadera, deditos en flex, etc. They bypassed my mind into my limbs, which executed their meanings. I went every day and listened. I also listened to the city: the blaring songs of the vendors of tamales oaxaqueños, the scrap metal buyers of mattresses and stoves; worked out in real time the unbearable abstraction of the subjunctive tense. Tengas vs. tienes.
I rented an office and began an only-en-español friendship with a bookkeeper and mezcal connoisseur who worked in the building. Then, with a young queer yogi with whom I sometimes drank ron in the afternoons, and then through K95 masks with an older gentleman who continued to come to the office when everyone else stayed home early in the pandemic. The secret language trick, the afternoon ron aside, has been the kind indulgence of my efforts by these strangers who have become dear friends.
As the grammar settles (unevenly) into my consciousness, I move differently. The past language failures fall away now that I function—a root canal, surf lessons, visits to government offices, etc.—in this other language, más o menos. The near daily ego death is humanizing, especially as I consider conversation, as evidenced by years of journalism interviews, to be a power. But there is freedom in accepting the part of the fool, and to stutter during the most basic of chores or suddenly lose words in the middle of a social interaction. Indeed, there is often complete liberation of ignorance, a sort of moksha, to borrow a word from Sanskrit. For example, I have been able to bow with idiotic head shaking and expansive smiles out of less pleasant interactions (being scolded for being late to an exercise class, for example). Being the outsider with a shaky language grasp is a pass; missing nuance (ahem, being told off) can blissfully lead to peace and forgiveness.
When I reflect on my roll call of languages, chance—and practicality and practice—has played a huge part in me maintaining them. As such, most of my abandoned languages were truly non-starter pipe dreams of a wannabe international polyglot. I am also aware that empire (including our current global one; I have traded largely UK spellings for US ones and shift between pronunciations depending on the audience) has everything to do with what and how I speak. Even though I am well aware of Spanish’s colonial origins, I associate it as a language of Mexico, having learnt it and largely only spoken it here. Mexican Spanish sounds like the BBC (or NPR) version of English, crisp and clear (to me), as well as being full of words from indigenous languages such as Náhuatl and Zapotec, many resplendently exotic (to me) with Xs. There are many variations of Mexican Spanish, and my entrance to it is largely from the lens of the country’s capital, which gives my experience of it a centralized tonality. Still, in the second half of 2022, as Americans gentrify parts of Mexico City with their work Zoom chatter in coffee shops, the loud, monied coloniality of English is evident, a block away at times, and I try to avoid speaking English as much as I can, or at least keep my voice lowered when I do.
Upon my last return to Malaysia, while on a bureaucratic errand, my mind kept racing to Spanish instead of Bahasa Malaysia. It is easier on the mouth to say “Gracias,” for example, than “Terima Kasih,” though both possess more grace than the English “Thank you.” I wouldn’t (and couldn’t) boast about my Spanish, but it is taking the not-English, second-language position in my head. It is becoming less of a language but another way of being. Perhaps more ser than estar. But to resolve this existential dilemma once and for all, I have taken up lessons again.
© 2022 J. R. Ramakrishnan. All rights reserved.