I met this lovely smiling young man Jonathan (this is his English name) during one of the meetings called “Connecting Through Cultures” held weekly at Montclair State University. Here he is studying Psycholinguists at the undergraduate level. Jonathan comes from Malaysia and after hearing his story on this autumn Wednesday afternoon, I got even more fascinated by Asia, which is to me both as a linguist and traveler is an uncharted territory. You are now going to see exactly why Malaysia is a place to fascinate and amaze linguists (and I assume travelers as well for that matter).
The fact that this Southeast Asian country boasts a dazzling linguistic diversity is obvious. Jonathan’s linguistic repertoire is indicative of that as well since this young man speaks English amazingly well, Cantonese, and Bahasa Melayu (Malaysia’s national language). He rates his English proficiency the highest with his Malay being better than his Cantonese that he mainly uses with grandparents.
One would presume the English instruction is being given a lot of prominence in Malaysia as the proficiency level in this language there was ranked as the 2nd highest in Asia. Jonathan would call himself a “native” English speaker as he picked it up from his parents and then went on to learn more at elementary school. There are essentially three types of them in Malaysia: national (where Malay is spoken), Chinese (with Mandarin used as an official means of communication) and Indian (with a combination of Hindi and Tamil). It is not difficult to guess what an immense amount of cultural and racial diversity Jonathan grew up being exposed to! According to him, that was his avid love for reading and creative writing with a mixture of “a very English-speaking environment” that resulted in him having not much difficulty mastering English. This international lingua franca is still holding a very esteemed position in the linguistic melting pot of Malaysia. It is actually not any type of accent but a low proficiency in English that is being currently stigmatized. The local variety used is referred to as Manglish (a unique mix of English, Malay, Cantonese and sometimes Tamil). Jonathan admits that besides linguistically enriching the country, this “jumble” of languages creates a number of comic situations.
This hard-working but yet laid-back guy seems to have no difficulty juggling English and a tonal language of Cantonese. He does think switching between languages involves a lot of pressure to transform your personality in the process. For example, when Jonathan speaks Cantonese, he has to think about the level of hierarchy to show an appropriate level of respect to whoever he is speaking with. Here in the United States where the young guy feels absolutely in the zone he doesn’t have to think so much about that. He is absolutely amazed by how unique English is over here and how the language use changes as one moves from one state to another. It might be a bit hard on Jonathan, as judging by his oriental look, people might assume he would probably speak English with a heavy Chinese accent. Looks can be deceptive and lead us astray as we make assumptions about a person’s linguistic identity.
Through the course of his internship in a learning difficulty center, he took an interest in psycholinguistics. As part of his research, he is looking at cognitive abilities of bilinguals. Jonathan assumes that being proficient in more than one language contributes to individuals becoming significantly better at inhibiting actions making it easier for them to react and adapt. After Jonathan gets an official approval, he is going to test his hypothesis using the Stroop test that is commonly used to measure reaction time in experimental psychology.
Finally, when asked to give some advice on how to become a successful language learner even if one wasn’t born in a place like Malaysia where multilingualism is common, Jonathan said that having a preferably native speaker to help you through the accommodation to a new language environment is crucial.
I wish this wonderful guy all the best in his research that I hope will enhance bilingual studies and I am sure he will enjoy the rest of his time here in Montclair.