Broken English

English language as she is broken

RECENTLY, I heard two radio deejays asking callers to vote for their all-time favourite television sitcoms from the 1960s and 1970s.  The names of the sitcoms jogged my memory of the early days of TV and how I enjoyed those happy half-hour comedy shows.

While we watched mostly American shows like Mr Ed the Talking Horse, the inimitable, coolest Fonzie in Happy Days and my favourites, Seinfeld and Frasier, it was interesting that ultimately the English comedies gained the highest votes.

Shows like Dad's Army, 'Allo 'Allo, Fawlty Towers, Mr Bean and Mind Your Language vied for top place but finally the latter was voted the all-time favourite.

I guess that's because we can relate to the comedy of errors among the motley group of foreign students and Mr Brown, the ever-patient teacher of that English language class.

There are plenty of pitfalls for second language learners because we tend to use a direct translation of our own language without applying the all-important rules of English grammar.

Last December when my nephew and his fiancee were preparing for their wedding, they sent their rings to the jeweller for engraving.  There was a great deal of excited anticipation when they went to collect the rings.

A lovely young lady who spoke English badly provided them with attentive service.  When she had to go upstairs to retrieve the rings, she told them: "You wait me here!"  The couple was appalled but they guessed she was probably saying a direct translation of the Mandarin phrase "Ni deng wo".

Look closer to see that this wrapping paper is
printed with the phrase: sweat dream...
I learnt from English language practitioners that people are often confused with the use of the verb "to be" and would avoid using them.  For instance, the verb "to be" (is) is often dropped in sentences that are directly translated from Bahasa Malaysia like "Kakak saya cantik." into "My sister pretty" when it should be "My sister is pretty".

They say that our habit of changing codes from our own language into English will almost always end up with grammatically wrong English.

Recently I was buying something at a stall and when I tried to pay with a RM50 note, the merchant hesitated to accept it.  He asked me: "Got small money?" It was my turn to hesitate because I needed a moment to process what he said. Small money is duit kecik so his query is if I have small change!

Another day, as I was walking pass a kiosk in a shopping mall, I noticed a queue of people waiting to place their orders.  Curious to see what was so good that it caused people to queue, I approached the kiosk for a closer look.  But I forgot what I was after when I spotted a sign that read, "Please row". I was amused that this instruction that told customers to form a row was apparently understood.

Now one of the things I do when I'm at a restaurant or cafe for a food review is to check out their restroom.  Everything was very pleasing in this cafe until I closed the toilet door and saw a sign that said: "Do not open water tap."  I thought it was a strange instruction because who would carry a spanner around to open the tap?

Some shops and offices put up a sign and shoe rack outside for visitors to store their shoes.  This made it clear that shoes have to come off before entering but when I arrived at an office that did not have any indication that shoes are not permitted, the lady who opened the door bluntly told me, "Open your shoes." I think she saw how my eyes widened as I paused before removing my footwear.

During the festive season, I was visiting a family when I saw their young son was feeling restless and probably bored with adult company.  His dad saw the signs too and gave his son permission to watch television by saying, "Open the TV."

It struck me once again, that the word "open" was used as a direct translation for "turn on" or "switch on" and previously for "take off" and "remove" in our local lingo.

Customer Service Representative in KL Department Store
who could speak good English!
While my own encounters with mangled English are truly a cause for concern, I was glad to meet a customer service representative in a Kuala Lumpur department store who could speak good English. 

As she helped me with my selections, I was reassured that Malaysians can be trained to acquire a good command of the English language.

So while Johor Baru is rapidly developing into a similar modern metropolis, I earnestly hope that service personnel are systematically being groomed to deal confidently with English-speaking foreigners moving into Iskandar Malaysia, and not make us the laughing stock in a comedy of errors.

Just as I was feeling more hopeful about the future of English in Johor Baru, the other day my niece who is in Form Five, was bursting to tell me her experience in school.

At break time, she and a few friends were hanging out in the corridor when a group of girls wanted to pass that way in great hurry.  To get their attention to give way quickly, one of the girls rushing pass shouted, "Let me pass away! Let me pass away!"

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 23 March 2011


Following the publication of the above article, I received some interesting feedback from friends:

Elilen said:  Very high people live in Bangsar ... Orang taraf tinggi duduk di Bangsar... How about that?

Noraini said:  My hubby came home from work today and told me he enjoyed reading your article, Broken English.  Then he told me last week, while waiting for a friend at Senai Airport, he came across a sign on a limo counter that read: "Help Table".  Go figure!


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