“Can you teach me a few Malaysian words?”
A tricky question, but we’ll start with the good news - English is widely spoken in Penang.
Lucky for Mark since he would have a better chance of picking up a car with his pinkie than picking up a foreign language. I can’t blame him in Penang though since language is complicated here. To give you an example, I actually speak different languages to my parents – Mandarin to my dad, and Hokkien to my mom. Mark’s head never stops spinning when we are over for dinner.
What makes Penang a truly multicultural place is that cultures here are still distinct. Chinese, Indians, Malays and people of other communities, continue to practice their own languages, religions, festivals and so on. Therefore, if it isn’t confusing enough to learn some words from each of the many languages spoken in Penang, you also need to know which language to speak to which person. Sure, you can speak Malay to a Chinese person, or Mandarin to a Malay or Indian, but you may get a strange look or a laugh in return.
Let’s get to the specifics:
Chinese people in Penang will generally speak Hokkien with each other, but they also may speak Mandarin, Cantonese, Teochew, or one of many other Chinese dialects. If you are eating at a Chinese restaurant or hawker stall, try out a couple Hokkien words.
Malays speak Malay (also called Bahasa Melayu). Malay is the national language, so everyone in Malaysia has a grasp of the language. If you visit a mosque in George Town, use some Malay words.
Indians in Penang are generally from the state of Tamil Nadu in India, so they speak Tamil. However, as generations have passed, Malay and English are becoming widely used. When you eat at a Nasi Kandar place in Little India, practice a few Tamil or Malay words.
Those are the common languages, but you will also hear Punjabi, Burmese, Nepali, Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, and Urdu. Confusing, I know.
Remember, English is just fine. But if you want to speak like a real Malaysian, just mix all the languages together in one sentence. A real melting pot of languages here!
Okay, now for the fun part:
Instead of listing out a boring dictionary style lesson, we walked through George Town and found a few locals willing to teach you their language and a little about their culture: