I’ve learned a lot of English in Malaysia. Even when a friend here speaks to me in English, they often have different ways of expressing themselves, managing a conversation, asking a question, or saying yes and no. It’s not a different dialect of English, it’s a distinctly different style.
This year my biggest communication barrier was not the difficulty of learning Bahasa Melayu, as I had expected, but the difficulty of learning the cultural context and nuanced meanings behind Malaysian English.
Politeness is done very differently in Malaysian English. I rarely hear “please,” “thank you” or “excuse me” here. Politeness is not a word you attach to a sentence. Instead, it’s expressed through indirectness. It’s impolite to say “I’m going home now.” I’ve learned that you must say “Teacher Christy wants to go back home now. Is it okay?”
It’s been hard for me to get used to this Rococo style. I’m a speaker of American English, a language in which Hemingway’s five word sentences are celebrated, and we’re constantly told to “get to the point.”
My American directness has gotten me into a lot of trouble in Malaysia. To me “maybe” means something may or may not happen, but here “maybe” is often used for politeness and indirectness, but doesn’t detract from the certainness of a statement. If someone says “Maybe you come to my house later?” I interpret that to mean I may or my not go to their house. But I’ve learned that the real message behind this is “Please come to my house, I’ve invited all the neighbors to meet you.” To further the confusion, if I said “Okay, maybe!” it would mean “I promise I’ll be there.” Because of this, there have been many situations in which I’ve accidentally given an American-No and a Malaysian-Yes.
Even though indirect politeness is used a lot, there are some surprising situations in which Malaysian English is much more direct than American English. It’s very common here to make forceful, imperative commands. In American English you would use the conditional and “please.” If I’m offering someone food, the polite way in American English would be “Please help yourself to some____” or “Have some_____” or “Would you like some_____?” It has taken me a long time to get used to the Malaysian way. “Christy, eat” or “Christy, come here, eat now.” I was insulted and taken aback by this for a long time. Even once I understood the cultural translation and was no longer offended, it’s hard not to feel uncomfortable about being ordered to sit and eat banana fritters.
In Malaysia English sweet=cute, smart=good-looking, and clever=smart/intelligent.
“Okay” has a very different meaning. If you say someone’s work is “okay,” it means it’s severely mediocre. In Malaysian English “okay” means “good.” After I made a speech for the 500 assembled students and teachers my first week here, I sat down and asked a teacher “How was it?” and she said “Hmmm…. It was okay. Should have been longer.” I thought that meant I had bombed and that she was being charitable enough to call it “okay,” when it actually meant “Good job, but I would have liked to hear a little more.”
“Okay” is also used to end conversations. It is normal here to abruptly end a conversation by saying “Okay” and walking away. It is fine to let your conversation partner know that you don’t want to talk to them anymore. When showing additional rapport and consideration, people say “Okay, I go first” and walk away. This is clearly very different from American English. In American English conversational style, it’s impolite to end a conversation abruptly without giving an acceptable excuse, like “So sorry, I’m actually running late!”
I often hear dramatic, elaborate, poetic ways of describing feelings here. A common phrase is “sweet, sweet memories.” This means “happy memories.” There are also many romantic ways of describing a partner or friend “He is my lover, we go to honeymoon somewhere very, very romantic. He is too handsome.” Or “She is my dear friend, she is so beautiful, like rainbow.
During my time in Malaysia I’ve adopted a few of these styles of speech. Realizing the nuanced meaning behind words, has done a lot to increase my cultural understanding, not to mention my interpersonal understanding. Every time I learn about an interesting use of an English word in Malaysia, it makes me really think about the hidden meanings and habits of the words I use.