The other day I was reading my friend's blog, "Pick of Penang", in which he was telling of his decision to begin learning both Mandarin and Bahasa Malay. I commend him for being so brave and ambitious. Reading his blog brought back my own ambitious attempts to learn a language once I moved to Penang.
A number of years ago I took Mandarin Chinese lessons in Boston's Chinatown. I remember driving to Chinatown every Sunday morning, through ice and snow and heat and rain to attend a 3 hour class in Mandarin. I did this for a year and a half. The first part of that time the teacher was from Taiwan and taught Mandarin with a Taiwanese accent. The second half the teacher was from Beijing and taught with a different accent. I must also say that she was a staunch supporter of the Communist government, which didn't make things any easier. I learned enough to be understood in Taiwan and China, so I didn't starve to death while visiting these places. I worked in a hospital with a large number of Mainland Chinese doing research work. I tried to practice with them, but they either wanted to talk just in English or they couldn't stop laughing at hearing a Caucasian trying to speak Mandarin. My closest friend at the hospital was from the Mainland and helped me quite a bit. The vast majority of the Chinese living in Chinatown Boston spoke Cantonese, so when I went there I spoke English.
Upon moving to Penang, I realized that Mandarin was not widely spoken, but Cantonese or Hokkien Chinese was. I also realized that Bahasa Malay was the official language. Thank God most people speak English. Whenever I had dinner with Kevin's family I was totally confused. Kevin is the only one in the family who can speak English. His nieces and nephews know a little, but are too shy to say much. I decided to study Hokkien and Bahasa Malay. I bought books for both languages, but I must admit I haven't really given either language a good try. The reason I get confused when I am with the family is that sometimes they speak Hokkien, sometimes Bahasa and sometimes Cantonese. When we visit Kevin's family in Kuala Lumpur everyone speaks Cantonese. The niece and nephew also are learning Mandarin, but I have forgotten most of mine.
Most of my local friends are Chinese and speak Hokkien, Cantonese and Malay. There is no way I can learn all three at the same time. So I have decided to stick with English and dig out my Rosetta Stone Mandarin language CD's to try to brush up on my Mandarin, hoping I can learn a little Cantonese at the same time. I really admire the people here who speak 3 or more languages, while people back home are struggling with just one!