Being Multilingual In a Multiracial Country Rocks

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There’s nothing that butters up the aunty that makes your char kuey teow quite as much as ordering in Mandarin

Having lived in Malaysia all my life, it has been my observation and experience that being multilingual is always beneficial. Considering the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic nature of our society, and also how we humans are inclined towards being divisive and close-minded, sometimes even downright hostile, it helps to be able to find as much common ground as possible. 

Among other things, knowing Mandarin has helped me quickly bridge cultural gaps that would have otherwise taken much more time and effort (and which ultimately might have still been in vain). This is very much so when the people you’re dealing with are suspicious of your actions or skin colour. 

An example would be when I used to make the evening rounds, going house-to-house, knocking on the gates of residents to help my dad collect their monthly newspaper subscription fees. When some folks looked out and saw a dark-skinned person, their guard naturally and subconsciously rose. 

I guess the logic is that if you can speak their language, you’re one of ‘them’.

Somehow, when they heard someone (even a person from an entirely different race) yelling out in their mother tongue, this really de-escalates the situation and takes away their sense of suspicion. 

I guess the logic is that if you can speak their language, you’re one of ‘them’ (同人), even by virtue of proxy (and that therefore, no, this particular dark-skinned person isn’t trying to break into their house). 

It helps me land jobs

On the career progression side of things, being multilingual has helped tremendously. Being able to speak Mandarin has landed me in very favourable positions, the least of which is having an easier time during interviews when I can prove that, yes, I can actually speak the language I listed as being ‘somewhat competent’ at, (unlike, say, being able to prove my ‘expert’ skills at using Microsoft Excel). 

Read: Mandarin Literacy For the 21st Century Workforce

It endears me in the eyes of native speakers

Then there are the intangible rewards, the tiny moments of kindness and generosity (or whatever you want to call it) where I am able to get discounts and elicit favours from people by making requests to them in their mother tongue. There’s nothing that butters up the aunty that makes your char kuey teow quite as much as ordering in Cantonese (or even Hokkien or Hakka for extra points; puppy-dog eyes included). 

Where others see cheap food, I see opportunities for cheaper food.

The true blessing, however, is the fact that because I understand Mandarin, I’ve often found myself being able to easily make friends with Mandarin-speakers who have a poor grasp of other Malaysian languages, and who would otherwise struggle to engage in conversation with me.

This really kicks into high gear when they find out that you can ‘get’ the references and jokes from their native tongue. When that happens, you’re well and truly part of the group. 

Another unexpected but cool benefit to being able to speak Mandarin that I’ve discovered is the fact that doing so makes me immediately so much more memorable. I’m not just any Joshua, I’m that Joshua, the one who can speak Mandarin. I was doing personal branding way before I even knew what it was called. Woooo

It makes me smarter (well, potentially)

All jokes aside, being multilingual has meant that I am now able to comfortably consume media and literature in other languages (oh yeah, I can read and write in Mandarin too). The Chinese culture spans 4000 years of history, and during that time, they’ve had the chance to produce truly unique pieces of work. Even their modern-day works have great value to the world. 

Not to mention all the aeroplane jokes (you know what I mean).

Being able to enjoy all of this without needing to keep my eyes glued to the bottom section of a screen where floating English words magically lend meaning is a very liberating feeling. 

Due to its lifespan, Mandarin and the other languages of East Asia are closely intertwined, with Mandarin having influenced and shaped many other languages to some degree or another. In my own experience, this has meant that having started with Mandarin as my foundation, I can use it as a gateway to learning and acquiring these other languages. 

Reverse engineering has allowed me to learn Cantonese so much more easily than if I had started from scratch, and I can comprehend small portions of written Japanese due to Kanji being similar to Mandarin characters

In short, being multilingual helps me become an even better multilingual.

Learning the language of another culture also teaches you about how their collective minds work

Learning the language of another culture also teaches you about how their collective minds work as it has been shaped by how they use it. Internalising a language inevitably leads to changes in your own thoughts and perceptions. Learning how the Chinese people use their idioms and parables, how they curse and plead, how they joke and inform and instruct, my own approach to speaking has grown more than had I just stuck to the languages I grew up with. 

My greatest multilingual achievement is cracking puns that knows no language barriers, much to the dismay of my friends (editor’s note: am his friend, can confirm). It is always a joy to elicit groans as well as eye-rolls from a wider audience, instead of just a specific crowd.

And now the real benefit of being multilingual

As an addendum, I’ve observed that if one were so inclined, being able to speak Mandarin makes pursuing interracial romance much more feasible. Even if you don’t need it to converse with the other half, being able to draw on it to appease the future in-laws (and their extended family) is worth its weight in gold.

Time to learn some Mandarin, I guess. 

See Also: Connecting People Through Language and Culture

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