Love for languages

Being born in multi-racial Singapore, I know at least two languages. Contrary to expectations, my mother tongue is not the better of the two.

Being brought up in multi-racial Singapore, I make many friends from different ethnic groups. I haven’t done any proper calculations but a rough estimation allows me to assume that my ethnic ratio of friends is quite close to the ethnic ratio of the Singapore population. So maybe just like how Singapore is, my main language is English.

Here’s a bit of history, both local and my family’s:

In 1819, Singapore was founded by the British East India Company and quickly became a flourishing sea port where many people from all over Asia came to make a living. In 1867 she was granted Crown Colony status, receiving orders directly from the Colonial Office in Britain instead of being managed by the intermediary office in India. This inadvertently resulted in deep-rooted involvement of the British with education in Singapore. Needless to say, British English became the language of administration for a land so mixed with various tongues, even past the years of self-government with Malaysia and the subsequent independence in 1965.

My maternal grandfather was born before WWII, when Singapore was still a crown colony. His family had moved to Singapore when he was still young, and he studied in the local English schools. By the time the war came, grandpa was a student in the local Junior Cambridge and studying linguistics. I’m not sure of the details, but he ended up being forced to work for the Japanese to translate morse code into English, Malay, Tamil, Chinese dialects and Japanese languages. After the war he resumed normal life by working as a British government official. He tutored languages and mathematics at night. My mother was under strict supervision to upkeep her grades in the English language so as not to embarrass him in front of his British friends and colleagues.

I’ve never had a chance to meet my grandfather; he passed away before I was born. But my mother made sure that my sisters and I had good command of English too. She encouraged us to mix around with schoolmates of other races, not to stick to our own, so naturally I developed my English very consistently. For many of my years growing up, my mainly-Malay-speaking father was not quite a part of my life, so I barely spoke in Malay, and even to today I’m not quite the Malay-speaking Malay person. Grades-wise, I did quite well for both English and Malay languages in school, but the stories of my grandpa being a linguist probably had an effect me; I casually picked up bits of Mandarin when watching Chinese dramas and paying attention to my Chinese friends’ conversations, and later on I actively picked up Japanese while watching anime, dramas and listening to J-pop. I don’t know if it’s ironic that I starting having a deep liking towards the Japanese culture and wanted to learn everything about it, when my grandpa would probably have hated the Japanese and everything about them.

I’ve never attended any formal lessons to learn the Japanese language, everything I know, I’d taught myself from paying attention to translations and drama conversations. I can read and write in kana but I’m hopeless with kanji, I’m easily overwhelmed by the massive combinations of strokes to make one word or even a short phrase in a single pictogrammic character, as with Japanese, Chinese and Korean writings. I’m okay with reading Arabic, but it ends at just verbalising the characters, not understanding what they mean. I plan to get to that in the future, though. I have more hope with latin alphabets, so when a chance came up last year to take up lessons in introductory French language at a discounted price, I went for it. Je suis parle français! And then, from playing Assassin’s Creed and reading the novelisation, I learnt bits and pieces of Italian. I’m thinking of taking formal lessons in Italian this year or next.

I’m not learning languages for any particular purpose. I just find it fun to be able to understand, speak, read and/or write in more than just one language. I find it enthralling that by knowing a new language, a previously unfamiliar part of the world opens up to me and envelopes me in its cultures. I wouldn’t dare say I’m a linguist – it takes much more than knowing only fragments of certain languages to be worthy of that title – but I’m a language enthusiast. And just yesterday it proved to be of help when a non-English-speaking Japanese couple came up to me to ask for directions. They were completely lost; their location was at the very edge of the small map they were holding and they weren’t even aware of that, and they wanted to get to a tourist attraction almost 2km away. I could sense their surprise when they realised I could understand their first sentence and responded in their language. They thanked me profusely (as Japanese typically would) after I gave all the directions I could, and I felt such great satisfaction that I had finally put my dormant knowledge of a foreign language to good use.

I wonder if grandpa would have been proud of me. I certainly do look up to him like some sort of hero so much that I had subconsciously ended up trying to emulate him.

Linguists are cool because they study languages – treasures that transcend time.


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