Falling in love again

Our new Malay friends
Our new Malay friends

No one could have been more surprised than I was.

I mean, I had known almost 40 years ago how much it mattered to me and how, apart from being on a stage, it was the only thing I wanted to spend time with, the only thing that put me in ‘the zone’. So why had I forgotten how much I loved it?

When living in the Middle East, getting back into it had never entered my radar, though I regretted it afterwards.

When living in Norway it was something I was adamant did not interest me. If anything I felt nothing but antipathy towards it.

In the Netherlands, I dabbled, tried it for a while, more out of shame than desire and then when I did start felt ridiculed for my efforts.

It even took me 18 months to get round to it in Malaysia.

Have you guessed what I am talking about, yet? Learning a language!

I did a French degree. I took German, French and English A levels. I even wanted to take Latin but they couldn’t fit it into my timetable. For years, even now, I have been known to describe myself as a ‘linguist’. So shame on me, shame on me, that once I had my degree certificate in my hand, I never entered a classroom again. Well, I did actually, in the 80s for shorthand, which is another language I suppose but I could be bothered to do the homework and dropped out before the end.

Maybe it was the peer pressure that did it? Last year, Josh was only here a few months but had found a private Malay teacher within weeks. Soon he could talk to the folk who ran the hawker stands while he ordered his pisang goreng and roti canai. If he could do it and wasn’t even living here, then surely I could too. I should, right? But I’m lazy. That’s the truth of it. If there was a class in the morning, not too far away and no more than once a week, I might just steal myself to succumb. And there was – at the Association of British Women in Malaysia (ABWM), once a week for 15 weeks on a Wednesday morning.  So, I booked.

Back to school and loving it
Back to school and loving it

What has surprised me most about the classes, and I am now half way through, is how much fun it is. Huge fun. It makes me laugh, it puts me on a high. I love the banter with the other students and the way I am beginning to understand that it’s a bit of a lego language and some words are composed of familiar prefixes and suffixes that I can slot together.

Two weeks ago, our teacher, guru Hanipan, asked us to turn to a certain page in our notebooks.

“Translate the following three exercises, please.” She asked. “Write it down.”

At that my heart leapt. Honestly and truly, it did a high-jump. I realised in that moment that I was thrilled to be able to bow my head and do a translation. It showed that I could actually do sentences. I could do questions and answers. Then, I remembered. Translations had been my favourite thing part of learning a language at school and uni too. How had I forgotten? It may sound a bit sad to some of you, but I was on a high for the rest of the day. I had found a path back to my ‘zone’.

Ian is no linguist. He is rubbish at pronunciation and has no natural ability (sorry, Ian, but it is true), however, even he has decided to learn Malay, and has had a couple of lessons over Skype with Josh. He’s doing well, far better than I’d have expected, and he’s not afraid to try it out in public either. Is it just being older that has made us brave?


In the last few weeks (and I’ve only spent 14 hours in a classroom so far, remember) we’ve been to Penang and Melaka. In both places we dared to try out our language skills [sic]. Just a hello, a thank you or a you’re welcome, here and there, but proper talking. And this was when we discovered the best perk of being able to speak Malay – the people you speak to here are welcoming, forgiving, surprised and utterly delighted with whatever we say, even if it is wrong. It gives us a filip. A boost. It makes our day every time. I can’t tell you how proud it makes us feel.

Just two weeks ago, we went for dinner in Kampung Bharu, and discovered that all the menus were in Malay and the hawkers spoke almost no English. As the one with the most experience (lol) I was designated the orderer for the six of us. Well, at least I knew what chicken, beef, fish and prawns were and could count to six. This was when I learned that understanding a menu was a must-have, especially the Malay for ‘no sugar’. Boy those lime juices were sweet! And it was only a few weeks earlier, in a Singapore food court, that I’d accidentally ordered chicken feet soup. Once the feet were removed from the broth, it was not much of a meal!

meagre lunch
meagre lunch
Can someone tell me what the Malay is for 'no chicken feet' please?
Can someone tell me what the Malay is for ‘no chicken feet’ please?

It was very different in the Netherlands. There, I’d try hard to speak a little Dutch in the shops and restaurants at least and however hard I attempted to gurgle that pesky, throaty G, they seemed to break into a frown and reply in perfect English. No wonder I gave up trying. But here, speaking the language is so rewarding.

I’ve often said that my goal in any language is to be able to ‘jam’ in it. To improvise, not to worry whether it’s right or not and not to form each sentence in English first and then translate it in my head before I speak, but to dive in and bypass my brain as I allow the words to flow. To do this, I recognise I can’t be worried about getting it right. All I aim for is to be just about understood and to connect with the other person.

When we were in Melaka last week, even Ian asked waiters for the bill, spoke to rickshaw drivers and people in shops. When we spoke a tiny bit of Malay to the bunch of tourism students who were doing a survey in the museum we were met with such delight that they recorded their encounter in a rather expert selfie.

I know that many intercultural experts claim that you can only ever really settle into a country when you speak the language but until now I’d buried my head in the sand about it. It’s not just the fact that speaking a little helps you connect with people but it also shows you are prepared to make an effort and that you have respect for your host culture. That school could be fun was something that I’d completely forgotten and I realise that if I’d only prioritised learning the language sooner and in every country I’d have made more friends faster.

As part of the work I have done with Career in Your Suitcase, I have always said that the first step towards finding meaningful work is finding your passion. I confess to a little complacency about this because I thought writing was my passion and I had turned it into a career. A decade or so ago I had recognised that cooking was another, and in the last five years, travel for sure.  Many of us are lucky to love doing more than one thing and I thought I was pretty in touch with my own dreams. So why or how I had allowed myself to forget about this one fundamental joy I cannot understand. But boy, oh boy, am I glad it has resurfaced. Better still, in my last lesson we studied food.


5 thoughts on “Falling in love again

  1. Jo your enthusiasm and joy of life always puts me in a good mood! Love to hear about your adventures and the happiness you can always find in the simple things. If only we had known at school the value of learning a language and how much it would mean in the future. When I think about our boring French teacher, poor man … he was quite useless at inspiring us to learn and I am so glad things seem to have improved now with DVD’s etc – much better than a stiff old book. I have always loved translating languages even on creams and shampoos etc and why oh why did Latin die???


  2. “no chicken feet”…in Malay language, you can say ” tak nak kaki ayam (Malay slang)” and for more formal ” saya tidak mahu kaki ayam” or “I don’t want chicken feet”


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