The challenge of having a limited common language.

On arrival into Johor Bahru I set about exploring my new environment to get to know it better. One thing I did learn very quickly was that not everyone here speaks English.

I have had some interesting experiences trying to convey my meaning to mostly friendly but uncomprehending Malays. The most common English word I have come across so far is CANNOT.

I have tried to step through the open gates to the Johor Bahru Magistrates Court, in order to speak to the security guard to enquire about the possibility of visiting/touring this grand old building. I was confronted, almost literally as my foot crossed the invisible entrance marker, by said guard immediately yelling CANNOT! at me from the safety of his concrete guard house,

I have tried to approach the guard house at the entrance to the Botanic Gardens to enquire about visiting hours, which admittedly did have a “No Entry” sign in the middle of the open gated entranceway, only to have said guard erupt from his guardhouse with hands raised saying CANNOT! CANNOT!

I have cycled to the open gate of the Johor Bahru Zoo to ask about what time in the mornings they open, only to have a zoo keeper advancing saying CANNOT!

Most times I have been able, with lots of patience and the ability to play one-sided charades, to get my questions across and get some semblance of answer – many of which were to tell me that the above places were closed, or no longer open to the public.

The flip side of that is shopping, where requesting an item involves mostly pointing and getting the response of CAN, or ALSO CAN if more than one thing is required.

The real challenge comes when it is a phone call.

My phone went off in the middle of a department store and on answering it I got a barrage of Bahasa* (the local language here). Upon asking if the caller spoke English the reply was CANNOT. A few English words scattered in amongst the Bahasa had me guessing that he was a courier (yes) delivering an expected parcel to Mr Tony (yes) at the airport (yes). But he was at the security gate and needed directions to get to the office. At which point I needed help. So I headed for the nearest staff member who freaked and took off in the opposite direction. All the while I’m telling the guy on the phone to WAIT, WAIT. I got another staff member who professed to speak English who then had a long and involved conversation in Bahasa with courier guy. After some minutes the phone got passed to a more senior shop assistant who then proceeded to have an even longer conversation in Bahasa with courier guy. Apart from confirming with me they spoke English and me asking if they could confirm the caller was in fact a courier at the airport, no other conversation had taken place between myself and either shop assistant, so I was at a bit of a loss as to the lengthy conversations taking place.  After some minutes I picked up on the name of the Mall I was in, alarmed I interrupted the conversation to find out what was going on. It transpired they were trying to give the courier directions across town to where I was standing in the shopping Mall; when I clarified that courier guy needed to wait where he was while I phoned Mr Tony, to get Mr Tony to call courier guy and give directions I could see everyone sigh a huge sigh of relief.

My Bahasa to date consists of Good morning and thank you, which elicits huge smiles when used, and does make me feel good about using them. So I guess I should be more encouraging toward others with the few English words they have, even if it is an imperative CANNOT!



*Bahasa lessons are on the horizon….stayed tuned.





0 thoughts on “The challenge of having a limited common language.

  1. May be learning Bahasa will also give you a better insight into the life and culture around you. But certainly it will win you the acceptance and respect of the people you live amongst. A win win situation.

    A wonderful rich new world awaits you

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