memory, Poetry

second language

Bila masuk sekolah rendah, dalam buku
kali pertama bertemu bahasa itu.
Cara berbicara sangat susah,
setiap hari, setiap kali, tengok muka
tapi tidak faham apa guru kata.

Dalam bilik darjah sangat bising
tapi kepala saya berapa kali pusing.
Hati penuh kerana tidak tahu
kenapa mesti belajar bahasa itu,
memang saya tidak setuju.

Now this language is an orphan child
in my mind wandering, meek and mild.
Lurking in conversations overheard,
incessantly scrabbling for missing words,
twelve years of lessons half-remembered.

Kalau saya boleh bikin lagi,
dari malam, belakang pergi pagi,
I would look for that orphaned child,
in woods growing dark and wild,
and tell him, jangan berhenti
saya boleh cakap Melayu, nanti.

I wrote this piece intentionally without using a Malay-English dictionary or google translate, so I shudder to think how badly I’ve mangled the grammar of Malay in writing it. (Apologies to my long suffering Cikgus.)

From Primary 1 to JC 2, I had a hate-hate relationship with the Malay language.

In Singapore’s national education system, everyone has to take a second language/ mother tongue, but I didn’t understand why mine was Malay. I didn’t speak it at home, as far as I was concerned, my mother tongue was English. Maybe, at a stretch, it would be Kristang, which was what my grandparents spoke when they didn’t want their grandchildren to know what they were saying.

Needless to say, I did badly in this subject in school, and failed it a total of 5 times in national exams, twice at the O-Levels and 3 times at A-Levels.

But in spite of my fervent resistance, this language became foreign yet familiar. They say language changes the way you think at a very deep-seated level, and I believe that is true for me and my half-past-six Malay.

And now, as I teach English as a second language to foreign students, I see them showing so much more persistence in learning a second language than I ever did.

So this poem is both an apology and a promise to do better, kalau masih ada masa.

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