bali, indonesia
Roz and I were on set for a new travel show in Bali last week and I found myself thinking of languages and how lacking I am when it comes to fluency. I want very badly to be good at languages, it was a dream of mine when younger to be multilingual. But no – years and years of Chinese tuition, months of intensive German class, a failed fart of a Korean stint, and a disappointing semester of French lessons have unequivocally showed me that different people have different strengths, and language is not mine*. My brain just isn’t wired that way, and as I age I am starting to realise there are some things you just can’t force, and that your body can continually surprise and disappoint you by turns and these turns are just another contour of a nuanced life.

My own envy becomes particularly apparent to me when I spend time around people who are naturally gifted at languages like Roz is. As I lie on her couch I watch her switch effortlessly between Indonesian and English, then Japanese as we dine with her husband, Mandarin as she orders for us, and then Indonesian again when we are threading our way through the streets of Bali, getting us the local, not the tourist price. She will deny it if asked but she has a talent for it. And as I watch her in not-so-quiet admiration I feel both a sense of pride (misplaced, I’m sure, as I have nothing to do with her abilities) and jealousy, I want to be able to be a verbal tourist to cultures in the way language allows you to, I want to linguistically access the heritage of my people in order to understand the decision to expunge it (like yiyun li) or embrace it. Someone I follow on instagram posted an excerpt from Kato Lomb’s Polygot: How I learn Languages recently and it really resonated with me, in particular this line: if someone knows how to play the violin only a little, he will find the the painful minutes he causes are not in proportion to the possible joy he gains from his playing. The amateur chemist spares himself ridicule only as long as he doesn’t aspire for professional laurels. It is true: I have no aspirations for a career in literary translation. I simply would like to converse.

I told myself I would give myself one last shot. It was a university dream of mine to try and learn Malay but I failed four semesters in a row to get a slot in the introductory class. It is supremely embarrassing that as someone living in a multiracial country I cannot speak our national language (which is Malay, not English, contrary to popular belief), all I can do is count to ten and not very consistently at that. Already I am incomprehensible in my own mother tongue, to the disappointment of my very chinese grandmother. Don’t even get me started on dialects. But I have never been someone embarrassed by failure, having developed an unusually thick skin over the years. I guess what I am saying is that I am on my way to becoming a very amateur Malay speaker. I am amassing a repertoire of broken languages. I have a list of things I have failed and am failing at, and that is okay with me.


*hot tip: hacking university life is all about taking classes that would cost a fortune otherwise, I can’t believe it’s free in Singaporean universities to just take whatever classes you’d like. In this way I have diversified for basically no money, which is just as well, since it has only revealed to me the variety of things that I am bad at.