IRFAN Syah Mahdifarid, 23, a faith and fatwa student at Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia can speak Malay, English and Arabic. Now, the 23-year-old wants to add Mandarin to his list of languages.
The Selangor native was inspired to learn the language when he received a RM2 discount from a Chinese shopkeeper after breaking the ice by asking for the price in Mandarin.
“I guess the shopkeeper was surprised to see a Malay boy speaking to him in Mandarin,” said Irfan, who just started a beginner’s course at the BBC (Belajar Bahasa Cina) Learning Centre in Shah Alam.
Being in a multiracial country like Malaysia, Irfan Syah is just one of the many people who can speak an additional language or two apart from their mother tongue.
Universiti Malaya Faculty Of Languages And Linguistics research and development deputy dean associate professor Dr Jariah Mohd Jan said Malaysians tend to be amazed by those with the ability to speak the mother tongue of another race because the language is not part of the school curriculum.
“Unlike English and Malay, which are embedded in the national syllabus, languages such as Tamil, Chinese and Punjabi are only available as elective subjects in SPM.
“So, if the individual does not belong to a circle that converses in these languages, then he would not have the proficiency,” said Jariah.
Singer Simon Mohan, 56, the first Indian to cut a Mandarin album in the 1990s, sets an example.
Growing up as the son of a shopkeeper in Tanjung Tualang, Perak, in the 1960s, Simon not only attended Chinese school – his best childhood buddies, who lived just next door, were Hakka Chinese.
“In a small-town setting, no one thought it was exceptional for an Indian boy to be able to speakMandarin. We just lived together and played together.
“Differences, whether in dressing, appearance or culture, didn’t come to mind.
“I guess that was because life was hard and people didn’t have time for senseless politics,” said Simon of the muhibbah spirit in the early post-independent years.
Simon never realised he was “different” until his first day as a Remove Class student in a Chinese secondary school.
“My parents sent me to Ipoh to continue secondary school.
“I think the Chinese boys were not used to seeing an Indian boy in their midst. Some even asked me if I was in the wrong school!” laughed Simon who eventually played volleyball, joined the Red Cross Society and became a Boy Scout.
Make-up artist and YouTube sensation Willian Chia, 35, had a similar story to share.
Because his parents were rubber tappers, Chia grew up in Meiha Estate in Kulim, Kedah, in a predominantly Indian community. In addition to that, Chia’s father was an Indian cinema fan.
“I grew up speaking Tamil. There were no questions asked.
“Even when our family moved to Sungai Karangan after the estate was sold, we continued to live with the Indian community,” said Chia, whose maternal grandmother was Indian while his grandfather was Hainanese.
But it was not until Simon and Chia started their singing careers that their multilingual abilities were truly appreciated.
Simon remembers his first time on stage at a Chinese wedding dinner at the Chin Woo Hall in Ipoh in 1979.
“Soundwise, the feedback I got was just average. But the response from a Chinese audience to an Indian singing in Chinese was overwhelming. I was asked to do an encore,” said Simon who sang Sam Hui’s Half Catty, Eight Taels and Heart of A Loafer.
Chia’s big moment also came on stage. At 17, he sang the title track from Hindi romantic comedy Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in a cultural night concert organised by his school’s Red Crescent Society.
“The audience was shocked, because not only did they see a Chinese boy sing in Hindi – but also in a female voice.
“I won the first prize,” said Chia who has since sung in the UK, Kuwait, Canada and Sri Lanka.
“Malaysians need to mix around more with different races in order to pick up each other’s mother tongues.
“People also choose to learn a new language out of necessity, economical reasons and idol worship,” said Dr Jariah.
Case in point is Stephen Yoong, 46, a Kedahan who revealed how he learned a Tamil song for a company Deepavali concert to impress his colleagues.
“It was a challenge to get the pronunciation right but I was very happy with the feedback,” said Yoong, who became a YouTube star after a video of him singing along to a Tamil song in a car went viral.
Mandarin tutor Afifah Mohd Rafidzah, 24, who received her early education in a Chinese kindergarten and later, a Chinese primary school, says her fixation with Chinese drama serials was motivating her to learn Cantonese.
“Mainly so that I don’t have to rely on subtitles or my friends to translate when I’m watching Hong Kong serials,” she said.
The learning process shouldn’t be too difficult as when she started at age five, she had zero knowledge of Mandarin as well.
“Before that, I spoke Malay to my friends and they answered back in Chinese. We started off like ducks and chickens,” laughed Afifah.
Her parents helped. They didn’t speak Mandarin either but still helped out with her Mandarin writing homework, using the school text books as a guide.
In 2013, 20% of Malaysia’s trade was with Mandarin-speaking countries.
This may explain why the parents of Lourene Paul Raj, 7, want to expose her to the language.
According to her aunt Pavithra Sundram, 28, an administration executive, Lourene’s parents want her to learn Mandarin as they are looking at her future.
But while mainstream languages have a ready syllabus for willing pupils, Dr Jariah also points out that many languages face the danger of going extinct if not preserved.
She cites Kristang, which is spoken by the Portuguese community in Malacca, and indigenous languages as examples.
“There is a motion to propose Kristang as an elective subject in the national syllabus,” she said.
Dr Jariah, who has done research for the Mah Meri language in Carey Island, Selangor, said there was also a great need for funding in the arena of indigenous languages.
So far, the faculty has conducted research on Bidayuh, Seletar, Semelai and Kanaq languages.