Learning Bahasa in Malaysia
By Antonio Graceffo
Nine years in Asia and FINALLY, I am in Malaysia, learning Bahasa Malay. Since coming to Asia I was constantly hearing from people how easy Bahasa is. Every time I struggled with my Chinese writing, Vietnamese grammar, Thai tones, Korean existence, or Khmer pronunciation there was always some comforting soul lurking around the corner, waiting to tell me, “You should learn Bahasa Malay. It’s the easiest language in Asia.”
Whether easy or not, I knew that I needed to learn the language because it is the root of Filipino, Southern Thai, and Cham, languages which are important for my field work. And of course, it is very close to the Bahasa spoken in Indonesia, Brunei, and Singapore.
After my first week of lessons, I have to agree, Bahasa is extremely easy. The pronunciation is very straight forward. Most letters only have one sound. There are only about two or three cases where letters change their pronunciation based on what combination they occur in. There only seem to be about two sounds we don’t have in English. Bahasa, unlike Chinese, Thai, or Vietnamese, is not tonal. As an added bonus, the language is written with the Latin alphabet. So, from day one, you can read. And best of all, you don’t have to sit and do writing practice for five hours per day like in Chinese. Finally, because Malaysia was a British colony they have absorbed a lot of English words into their language, particularly for modern or technical terms, but a lot of common words come from English as well.
My teacher often tells me, “In Indonesia they have words for all of these, but in Malaysia, we just use English.”
The only trick with the English loan words is that they will be spelled Malay style. So, central becomes sentral and bus becomes bas, taxi becomes teksi, pencil becomes pensel, and station becomes stesen. Adjectives go after nouns, so bus station is stesen bas.
Some English words retain their original spelling, such as Wales or Miami, but the pronunciation will be according to the Malay alphabet. So, you have to remember to talk funny when you encounter seemingly familiar words.
I originally was planning to approach learning Bahasa Malay the same way I learned Chinese, Thai or Vietnamese, using a modified ALG, listening based approach. But after my first few lessons, I began to suspect whether ALG theory is necessary for easier languages. I am still convinced that for Chinese, Thai, Khmer, Vietnamese, and Korean, ALG is perfect, but with Bahasa, it seems like overkill.
In ALG theory, there is no such thing as a difficult or easy language. And on some level I agree. For example, Italian is one of the easiest European languages. People find that after a few weeks of classes, they can already function and maintain polite conversations with native speakers. German is generally considered a much more difficult language because of the complex grammar, particularly, case declinations. But, you could study Italian for years and not understand, or perhaps appreciate, literary Italian which is extremely flowery and complex. But even high level German writing is fairly straight forward. So, maybe it is easier to grasp low-level Italian, than low level German. But advanced Italian is more difficult than advanced German, so it evens out in the end.
And of course, Italian, German, and Chinese children all begin speaking at the same age, and go through the same stages of linguistic development at the same pace. So, this would support the theory that all languages are equally difficult or easy.
David Long, who runs the Thai and ALG program at AUA school in Bangkok always chastises me. “You are thinking about the language too much.” He says. He wants me to focus on communication, rather than elements of language. One of the points of ALG is that grammar is completely synthetic. It doesn’t even exist. People were talking for thousands of years, and they understood one-another, before there was grammar. Anyone who has ever taught or tried to learn a language knows that you can’t learn language by memorizing grammar rules. One of the first proofs of this is that native speakers make very few grammatical errors, but generally haven’t memorized any rules.
I agree with the ALG principle of not teaching grammar or any other aspect of the language. I do not let my teachers teach me any grammar rules. Neither do I memorize lists of nouns or verbs or special adjectives….I don’t even let them “teach me” the pronunciation. I just listen. And the pronunciation becomes apparent.
I asked one of my Khmer friends where he was headed and he answered, “Muskle training.” He meant he was going to the gym. He wanted to say “muscle training,” but he said “muskle.” Obviously, the only way he could have made that error was that he learned from reading, rather than listening. When an Asian student says to me “Where do you are from?” I know he has learned English from books. He memorized that the word “do” is used for questions. It is not even remotely possible that he listened to a native speaker and this is what the native speaker said, or what he heard.
I strongly agree with ALG that grammar, pronunciation, and especially usage can’t be taught. They can only be learned properly through repeated listening to a native speaker.
Native speaker preschoolers will not ask you, “where do you are from?” Even though they don’t begin attending grammar classes until they start school. They know how to use the question forms properly from listening.
With Bahasa, I began with an ALG approach. I didn’t want the teacher teaching me anything or explaining anything. In the early stages of learning a language, the explanations are in English, which is a complete waste of time, when you should be listening to the language. If you are listening to the language, and you are clever, and constantly guessing, you begin to formulate rules. For example, the teacher didn’t have to explain to me that adjectives came after nouns. When I heard “stesen bas”, rather than “bas stesen,” I guessed that adjectives came after nouns. But I kept listening and guessing till I heard enough examples, which confirmed my suspicion.
With Thai, Chinese and other difficult Asian languages which have a unique writing system, we estimate that a student needs 2,000 hours of classroom. The first 800 hours would be listening only. Next, speaking and reading would be added, BUT all classes would still be taught in the target language.
I know that it goes against the strict ALG theory, but I personally believe that it is at least possible that some languages are easier to learn. For example, Chinese is tonal. Bahasa is not. Chinese writing system is definitely harder. It takes native speakers 5 hours per day of practice for 12 years of school to learn it. Bahasa uses the Latin alphabet.
The US government categorizes languages according to difficulty. Chinese is a Category 3 language. Bahasa is Category 2, BUT, I believe, they only classified it as a 2 because the culture of Malaysia is different from US culture, which makes language acquisition harder. For someone already familiar with Southeast Asian culture, particularly Thai culture, I assume Bahasa is a Category 1 language. Category 1 languages could be learned in 90 days of full time study.
Normally with Chinese or Thai or Khmer we say that reading comes last. But with Bahasa, my theory is that reading can come in the first week.
I was trying not to read at all in my first lesson, but by the end of the first hour, it became apparent how incredibly easy the language was. And it made almost no sense to refrain from reading, particularly since the language used the Latin alphabet.
So, I gave in, and began reading. The obvious advantage of reading was that it “sped up” the listening process. Looking at the letters helped confirm what I was hearing. The disadvantage of reading of course is that your pronunciation will be prejudiced by what you see. For example, my Khmer friend who was doing “muskle training” So, although I was looking at the letters, I didn’t read aloud. I just listened to my teacher, and followed with my finger on the page.
I did not allow the teacher to “teach me” the alphabet or pronunciation rules. I just made guesses about the pronunciation of the letters I was looking at. Fr example, when I heard “sechepat” but saw “secepat” I decided that in Bahasa, like in Italian, a “c” before a vowel becomes a “ch” sound.
Originally I didn’t want to speak at all in the early lessons, because of my ALG ideas about listening till your pronunciation is perfect. But again, Bahasa is not Vietnamese. It is easy. You can learn to pronounce correctly, albeit with a foreign accent, in a day or two. To achieve native pronunciation would still require an ALG approach, but with much fewer hours of listening. I think 100 might be too many.
Now I am reading, speaking and listening in class, which isn’t what I believe a student should do. The next step is to return to my roots of learning European languages, where the goal is to get away from the textbook, and on to real materials, as soon as possible.
With Bahasa it might actually be possible to finish the 16 lessons in the textbook and then move on to working with newspaper and magazine articles. That is my goal anyway.
For now, I am still ALGing in that I refuse to speak Bahasa outside of class or to depart from the book. That will come later. I am also considering going to Indonesia. Here in Malaysia there is and probably will be very little opportunity to use Bahasa in every day life. Nearly everyone speaks English and most of my friends speak Mandarin as well as English. There isn’t a real “need” to speak Bahasa to function and I suspect I won’t get any practice apart from people who are polite enough to humor me. In Indonesia, the language is actually used everyday for everything.
Another side note, which I am sticking here for lack of better organization: As easy as Bahasa is, I would have to assume that Filipino is easier. It should have the same Malay roots and simple grammar. In fact, I noticed a lot of the words are the same as the bit of language I picked up in the Philippines. But, spoken Filipino contains at least 40% Spanish loan words and a huge percentage of English vocabulary. Which must make it even easier to learn. I wonder why no one ever mentions Filipino in the list of easy to learn Asian languages?
For now, I am learning Bahasa Malaysia. Next, maybe I will learn Bahasa Indonesia or go back to Philippines to study Filipino, or take a break from the Malay language study track and head back to Vietnam or Taiwan to finish my studies there.
Studies lead to other studies.