February 7, 2017

Southeast Asia: Linguistic Observations from an English Speaker

Offerings slid through the plexiglass box at Wat Chalong.
The Southeast Asian portion of our trip had been, well, quite the trip for me.  I've had to rely on English.  Occasionally, I've helped out fellow travelers in Spanish or French, but even then, I'm still totally that English-speaking privileged traveler.  It's been very humbling.

Side-car tuk-tuks (tricycles) waiting for passengers in Manila.
In most countries we've visited, I've had *no* words on arrival.  Korean, which is semi-tonal, seriously multi-syllabic and consonant loose, was extremely difficult for me.  The romanization was super-hard-to-follow with some books/guides/signs saying things like Kokuohae and others saying Goguohae (made up example) all for the same thing, which if you could compare the Korean script or Chinese characters you could recognize that the consonant changes were immaterial. *Plus* all the locals seemed to slur/mumble and drop syllables at will, so gamsahamnida (formal thank you, apparently, also "I love you") often sounded like kamhamnda.  Definitely a tough language. 

View of Busan bay from the Busan Tower
Taiwan, thankfully, was Mandarin with an accent/dialect I'd heard before, but it was the first time I'd interacted with non-pinyin Romanization after having studied Mandarin.  Holy shit -- Keelung = Qilong, romanization is apparently not so simple.  Their history of having a strong European influence prior to standardized/formalized pinyin resulted in all sorts of different transliteration of consonants and vowels so maps, addresses, & written romanized names all could be very far off from each other, and yet the tones never change.  The English in Taiwan, when we interacted with it, tended to be standard English, not a creole or pidgin.  But that is probably because I could use a wee tiny bit of Mandarin to get English menus or fluent speakers to help us.

Shrine in the middle of the Miaokou nightmarket in Keelung, Taipei. 
Slowly, as I saw the pattern repeat itself across several of these countries, I had a realization.  The romanizations were all over the place because in tonal/semitonal languages, the tone is more important than the consonant and vowel pronunciation.  When I shared this with E, he said, "oh, so it's like V/B in Spanish or L/R in Japanese" -- and, of course, because he is super smart and observant, he was totally right. I'd already learned that consonants are flexible in some languages, I just hadn't combined the concept with tones.

Sneaky monkeys breaking into the aviary and stealing water and food, Kuala Lumpur Bird Park. 

Next up -- Tagalog? Well, let's just say that I realized I could recognize the numbers as Spanish and that they used "pero" to mean "but" and some other random Spanish and English popped up while listening, but for the most part, the language was totally and completely incomprehensible to me. *And* everyone we met spoke English on some level (apparently Taglish is a thing, as is Singlish in Singapore -- when you can't comprehend the other local languages, you'll get quite good at understanding the local English variant).  Again, with the English privilege.  This is the first country I've ever visited where I didn't even learn how to say Thank You in the local language before leaving (in fairness, "Thank You" seemed very common).

Happy Year of the Rooster!

Singapore was super easy, because English *is* the official language.  Singlish has some adorable pidgin that we noted, but many of the pidginisms/creole phrases in localized English variants are commonly used throughout Southeast Asia to the point where after several weeks of hearing and using them, I think they're just English now.  ("same same" being the most common example, which according to a quick Internet search supposedly started in Tinglish, although I first heard it in Hawaii years ago.  It's been adopted in most of the places we've gone this trip, apparently having traveled as far as the UAE in general usage.  Example: Tomorrow weather same same today).

Beers and lunch at LeVeL33 overlooking the Singapore harbor.
Malaysia was similarly easy.  They teach English in school so most of our drivers and the various tourist service folks spoke it reasonably well, and all of the signage in the train and metro stations were in at least Malay and English (often Chinese as well).  Bonus, students often supplement their incomes while driving for Uber (or the Southeast Asian local competitor Grab, flat fee and recommended by our Uber driver in KL as the cheapest way to get to the airport), so we had several interesting more complex English conversations with car service drivers. (Random fact: Noob has made it into Manglish, which I think is hilarious.)  Embarrasingly, despite trying, I also didn't learn how to say thank you in Malay.

Epic nighttime views from the Hyatt Regency Club KL
Thai was very interesting.  It's super tonal and the wai (quick prayer hands, short bow) is very much a part of all daily communication.  I did learn to say thank you ("Korp Kun Kaa" + wai) but quickly learned that the "kaa" (rising tone female speaker "please"-like sentence marker) could sound like "gaa" or a very nasal "hnaa" so long as the tone was correct.  Similarly, many of the Tinglish words dropped the last consonant or changed it, so a very nasal "why why" would be my rare order of white wine and "reh why" would be E's order of red wine (I say rare because wine is expensive compared to just about everything else in Thailand, so mostly, we ordered "bia" or "soda wata").  Overall, once we got the hang of Tinglish, it was surprisingly easy to get around in Thailand.  At the dive center, I loved listening to all of the various versions of English spoken between the Thai staff and all of the international students and instructors -- everyone managed to understood each other, but the grammar and syntax and pronunciation were so very diverse.  At times I felt like I was watching my mother tongue evolve in front of me.  Also, it was funny to arrive in Vietnam and realize that after 2+ weeks, I'd so internalized the wai that I kept doing it in Vietnam, where it is not used and E laughed at me until I unlearned it.

Delicious bus stop ($2 noodle soup) between Phuket and the ferry to Koh Samui.
In Vietnam, the linguistic experience has been quite easy.  Thanks to the prevalence of Vietnamese immigrants in California, I arrived knowing how to say thank you and the roman letters (but not the accents) for many of my favorite Vietnamese foods.  I sat next to a Canadian expat English teacher on the plane from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC/Saigon) and she gave me the low down on some useful phrases and the hand gestures that are common and what they mean (super helpful!).  We stayed 4 nights in the Park Hyatt Saigon (points and cash!) which means that everyone we interacted with in the hotel spoke perfect standard English.  Also, for the first time since Tagalog, the actual script of the language was based on the roman alphabet (albeit with the most tones we've encountered thus far - 6!).  Most of the menus we encountered were in English and Vietnamese, and if not English, they at least all had pictures.  There was plenty of standard travel miscommunication and frustration in HCMC, but most of it was cultural, not linguistic.  In fact, oddly, HCMC felt more international, more developed/modern, and easier to get around in English for both of E and me than Bangkok (but, with less than 5 days in either city, no doubt our impressions of both cities are not nearly big enough to make any sort of generalization).  

Typical HCMC traffic -- 80% scooters.

Now, we are visiting friends (who live in Paris but who are visiting family) in Long Hai, near Vung Tao.  Here, our linguistic interactions are not the norm.  The first night, they had us over for dinner and we were a party of 10 where I believe the common languages spoken were: French - 9 (have I mentioned how much I adore E? He's so patient and supportive of my love of linguistic experiences), English - 3 fluent/5 some, Vietnamese - 4 fluent/3 some, Korean - 2.  At most points during the meal, conversations and translations flowed through and between all of the languages, with a heavier emphasis on French for obvious reasons.  One of the conversations we had was about how despite being identified as a Francophile nation, most people under the age of 40 in Vietnam do not speak French and their second language is English.  I confirmed this with our general experience in HCMC.  It was very fascinating to have this conversation, in French, with speakers of French who had no direct experience with this change because they speak Vietnamese when in Vietnam.

Fish farms at the Vung Tau Ferry pier.
Overall, I had expected the Southeast Asian portion of our year of travel to be much more difficult.  I've been surprised by how easy it is to get around in English.  In many ways, linguistically, South America was actually more difficult.  There, the average person speaks their local Spanish dialect (which can be very different than the Spanish I know) with no English, whereas in Southeast Asia, the average person does have some form of English as a second language.

Delicious home cooked meal in Long Hai.
In short, it's been an amazing linguistic experience, and it's fascinating to hear and see the different variants of English that are used in this part of the world.  I suspect the English spoken here (simpler, direct, consonant flexible, repeated words, no requirement to conjugate for tenses if time indicators are used, etc.) looks much more like the future of international English than the English I speak at home.


Jen said...

I really like "same same" for some reason. And it's hilarious that you kept doing the "wai" even when in Vietnam. Sounds like something I would do. :)

bt said...

I *love* "same same" it feels primeval in its ability to communicate, no? And yes, I'm a mimic, even when it's not best to be one...

Cathryn said...

Love this post!!

Biting Tongue said...

@Cathryn, thanks. I think it's my favorite post from Asia so far as well. It actually took quite a bit of time to compile all of my thoughts on the language and taking the time to do it was very educational and rewarding.