When you have no words

Joshua on TV
Joshua on TV

Joshua, our 22-year-old has just taken part in an international Malay speaking competition and the experience for us, his parents, who have watched it happen, has been extraordinary. But before you stop reading and think this blog is just an excuse for me to crow about my offspring I must reassure you. This is actually a blog about writing, expression and goal-setting and it just so happens that the protagonist, maybe even the ‘hero’, is our son.

It has all been rather surreal. Last summer Josh spent some time here with us in Kuala Lumpur and decided to take a few informal lessons in Bahasa Melayu (Malay language) so he could speak to the people who ran the street stalls and sold him deep fried bananas. When he went back to finish his degree at SOAS in London he wanted to pursue his studies with the language, but the university only offered Bahasa Indonesia, which is, apparently, pretty similar to Malay. After the first term his teacher, Pak Din, asked Josh if he would like to enter a Malay speaking competition that was all expenses paid (including flight) and took place in KL. Knowing his parents lived here and Josh was likely to want to visit anyway, it seemed like a way to get a free flight home. Josh went ahead with his application and a few months later discovered he was to represent the United Kingdom in the competition named Pidato Antarabangsa Bahasa Melayu (PABM). It seemed as ridiculous to Josh as it did to us, but as he had by then also won a scholarship to study in Indonesia for a year come September, he saw it as a way to get a free flight all the way to Indonesia.

Anyway, he took his speech-writing seriously and realised the only way he was going to get through this was to speak about something he was passionate about. Luckily, the environment was on his list of possible choices and so he flung himself headlong into to researching sustainable solutions. He also found a Malay student at SOAS to give him a few conversation classes and organised a few Skype calls with my Malaysian friend, Pam. He even got himself a pen friend. Remember those? Just before the competition I asked my own Malay teacher, Hanipah, whether she might know someone who could help Josh further and she immediately called her grand-daughter Sofea to ask if she might be interested. On the spot Sofea agreed to be his coach and launched into her task, talking to him daily for about an hour. Little did he know back then that Sofea was actually a champion speaker herself and that the environment was one of her pet topics.

A week before the competition and Josh was totally insecure – about his content, about his ability to memorise a five-minute speech, about his language skills. Yet, he was so grateful for the opportunity that had landed in his lap that just ‘doing it for free flight’ was not good enough. He set himself the goal of making it through the first round and into the Quarter Finals, thinking that would mean he’d acquitted himself admirably, considering he was still a mile away from being fluent. With 40 competitors in his category, the chance of him making it through were slim. Sofea, her granny, and I went along to watch. I have to say ‘watch’ because that was all I could do. Despite my 15 classes of Malay I could really only pick out a few familiar words and had to content myself with listening the speakers’ intonation, watching their hand gestures and feeling the rhythm of their language. Despite my ignorance, repeated words jumped out at me, phrases hit me with their lyricism and rhythm and, surprisingly, I loved every moment.

Josh, Sofea and her granny
Josh, Sofea and her granny

However, thanks to determination and hard work he made it through and found himself having to spend all his spare time adding, perfecting and memorising another minute to his speech.

Being blond-haired, blue-eyed, white-skinned and Western with an uncanny knack for the Malay accent, by chance Josh was selected as a kind of poster boy for the competition and was interviewed on TV and appeared in the papers. Now the level of surreality was rising to impossible heights. Further, Josh felt there was now an expectation that he would do well coupled with a few grumblings from some other contestants. Despite his lack of experience and never having had a single formal Malay lesson, he was seeded first. The responsibility was overwhelming. Thanks to more hard work, determination and the toughest coach on the planet, he made it to the Semi Finals and again had to add another minute to the speech. This time I attended with Pam. She was impressed with his accent and delivery and reckoned he had a good chance, but again, I could only judge the performances by what I saw and sensed.

Flag-waving for the UK
Flag-waving for the UK

Then, two weeks ago on Saturday, Josh took part in the Finals. They were broadcast live on TV and attended by the Prime Minister and his wife. All competitors were given a local baja melayu outfit to wear. Josh’s orange ‘confection’ looked like it had been originally made for an 18 stone body-builder and needed to be folded over and over to make it fit. He made quite a spectacle and had to wave their co. We were all given Malaysian flags to wave, joined in with the national Satu (one) Malaysia song and enjoyed a cultural show. All the time, never understanding a single word yet having a pretty good idea of what was going on despite our lack of language.

Mmm, nice outfit!
Mmm, nice outfit!

The competition was fierce. Wyatt, from the US and Emma, from Australia, gave terrific speeches. Josh’s seed position slipped to second. Ian and I sat near the front of the Convention Centre in Putrajaya alongside Sofea and her family and were on the edge of our seats. But he was grinning went he walked on stage and had the audience laughing within seconds.

Half an hour later, at 11.30 pm, after three hours of watching a performance we had not understood we were all out of our misery. Josh had won!

Against all odds and expectations, he had won a sizeable lump sum and a scholarship to a leading Malay university to follow a masters program. He was also whisked off to appear on a breakfast TV show the following day. It was a whirlwind, a rollercoaster and a whole host of clichés rolled into one, but more than anything it was extraordinary.

Of course we are inordinately proud of what he has achieved but for me the experience was about so much more. It taught me so much about language and about achieving our dreams. It reminded me of so many important things that you should bear in mind when you are faced with a scary, challenging writing task and how you too, can make it happen.


On language

  1. The rhythm and pattern of language shines out beyond the words themselves.
  2. The way you present your words makes a big difference to how they are received.
  3. If you can get your audience on your side, perhaps by telling them a joke, or a story they can relate to, it makes it easier to get your message across.
  4. Write about something that truly matters to you and somehow the right words will come.
  5. You can revise and polish a piece of work endlessly. It will never really be finished but you still have to find a place to stop and meet your required wordcount and submission deadline.
  6. Read aloud what you write to someone who cannot understand the words and ask them what they think.
  7. Listen to languages you do not understand and find inspiration for your own writing.
  8. Yes, it can be scary and you may look a fool, but it’s worth it.

On goal-setting

  1. Yes, you can set yourself a seemingly impossible goal – what Nigel Risner calls a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (or BHAG for short).
  2. Nothing worth doing does not contain an element of risk.
  3. Step up to the plate.
  4. If you want to succeed you need to put in the hours.
  5. Build a support team of people who can help you in your quest.
  6. Find someone who is better than you and who knows the ropes to be your coach.
  7. Use your coach regularly.
  8. When the world has expectations about your success, rise up to be the person they think you are.
  9. Fake it til you make it
A surreal moment
A surreal moment

One thought on “When you have no words

  1. That is so brilliant Jo-what an amazing story! So great to hear and read and what a fantastic accomplishment 🙂


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