News  |  Opinion

Oh my (English) accent!


My first language is the English language. Sure, people can criticise me all they want if they think that being Malay, I have to speak to Bahasa Malaysia.

I speak Bahasa Malaysia too. It’s just that the language isn’t the first language that I learned and I feel much more comfortable expressing myself in English.

It’s just the way I was brought up. My entire family speaks English, with just a smattering of Bahasa Malaysia and Cantonese here and there (and slightly less often, Bugis).

But if you listen to the English that my family members speak, you will realise that it is entirely colloquial. But if you were Malaysian, you would immediately understand.

And, myself, being a writer and also involved in the broadcast media, language skills is something very important and crucial.

So I honestly try my best to perfect my language skills in both the main mediums of English and Bahasa Malaysia. But, my personal preference is still English. I can’t help it.

And if you aren’t living under a shell, then you would know Malaysia seems to have an issue with the English language, both learning it and also condemning it.

All around, it seems that Malaysians’ proficiency in the language is rapidly dropping. And the government is trying to do everything it can to improve the situation.
However, my gripe (it’s depressing that my weekly column has become a tirade of bitchiness complaints recently!) is more about the way English speakers in Malaysia choose to speak.

Almost everywhere I go, I hear Malaysians speaking English in all kinds of accents, but never the Malaysian accent! The three favourites are American, British and Australian.

What is wrong with speaking English like a Malaysian? Does it make your language proficiency less... proficient?

Well, I guess the reasoning is... 'Forget the grammar and language proficiency. As long as I sound cool people will think I speak English well!'.

Look at Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed. He speaks like a true blue Malay. In fact, comedians even imitate his accent whenever they want to sound Malay. But his English is excellent.

Look at Datuk Seri Samy Vellu. He speaks like a true blue Indian-Malaysian. In fact, comedians even imitate his accent when they want to sound Indian-Malaysian.

But his English is excellent... or wait a minute. That’s a bad example.

I am a big advocate for colloquialism when it comes to languages because language is supposed to be organic as history has proven.

It will always be influenced by external factors such as culture, people, technology, other languages, etc. Hence it is growing and ever changing.

Take for example the word ‘amok’. Isn’t it a Bahasa Malaysia word? English decided to adopt it as an English word as well, and it is now in every single English dictionary.

Even Bahasa Malaysia has words that are influenced by other languages (through people of different cultures coming here) such as ‘tuala’, ‘zaman’, ‘dunia’, and even ‘Allah’.

Even the way language is spoken can be influenced and evolves. The Queen’s English has seen such proliferation that there are so many versions of it.

When English went across the ocean from Britain to North America, the accent slowly changed into the English we so often hear on TV and in the movies.

When it went all the way down under to Australia, again, it changed into the drawl that we so affectionately identify with people like Crocodile Dundee, Steve Irwin and Hugh Jackman.

And so it was when English went to all the different parts of the world such as India, Jamaica, South Africa, and even Malaysia.

If there can be formal recognition of American English, Australian English, Canadian English and even Indian English, why can’t there be for Malaysian English?

I think it’s because Malaysians don’t have a strong sense of identity and pride, and we would rather imitate things that we see from outside.

I’m sure my argument is going to attract a lot of critics. Many will counter-argue saying that certain people have different exposures throughout their lives.

Fine, I guess it’s okay for those who grew up in other countries and learned their English there before coming back to Malaysia. This gripe isn’t targeted at you lot anyway.

It really boils down to ‘he who eats chilli will feel the heat’, as the popular Bahasa Malaysia saying goes (after being translated to English, of course).

Tags: Zan Azlee