Words to live by

Steamed buns food stall in Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Malaysian steamed buns – what a passer-by might offer you in a rural village.


Brian, who grew up in Malaysia, is embarrassed at any suggestion that he’s a high-achiever.


The 37-year-old, who works as a language translator, educator and blogger, is more interested in helping others learn languages than bigging himself up.


“Where did you hear that from?” he says, wincing, when some of his many achievements are mentioned.


But to (briefly) lay out his credentials, he was born in Malaysia, knew four languages by the age of seven and is now fluent in eight languages and can get by in another four  – including two endangered languages.


In 2012, he gave up a well-paid job as an engineer to travel the world for two years and spent time learning new languages on three continents.


Explaining why languages are important to him, he says: “Learning languages helps you understand how other people think and view the world.”


For instance, in his native Penang Hokkien dialect of Malaysian, hospitality is a big deal.  Instead of the English “hello, how are you?”, the traditional greeting in Hokkien translates as “have you eaten yet?”


And you’d answer honestly such as ‘no, not yet’ or ‘yes I have’ because people are genuinely interested, he explains.


“In fact, in a small rural village if you replied ‘no, I’m hungry’, someone would probably say ‘oh, I have some steamed buns you can have’,” he adds.


All languages reveal something about the people speaking them, says Brian (whose full name is Brian Loo Soon Hua), and that’s particularly true of minority and endangered languages.


These are just three of the fascinating things he’s learnt:


*Tribal languages which don’t have a writing system, often have a more complex spoken language.  For example, in several Australian aboriginal languages, it’s taboo for a mother-in-law to speak to her son-in-law.  And, if they do speak, they have to use a different form of the language, with a special set of vocabulary.  “I think this may be a case of putting obstacles deliberately in place!” he laughs.


*Some languages use noises such as whistles, clicks (like Xhosa, Nelson Mandela’s native language) or popping sounds – but why?  One theory is that hunting communities developed these unusual forms of speech so as not to alert animals and birds to their presence when they were closing in on their prey.  Whistling sounds can also be heard across wider distances in mountainous areas.


*Some fishing and seafaring communities, such as Malaysian, Indonesian and Polynesian ones, favour words with more vowels. (For instance, the Indonesian word for dolphin is lumba-lumba and the Filipino word for grouper fish is lapu-lapu. ) Linguists think it’s because these people are often communicating across a distance on a boat and vowel sounds carry further.


In the coming months, Brian will be working with uTalk to share more facts about languages, their origins and how they shape us.  In the meantime, he tells us a useful phrase for farewell in his first native language.


It’s ban-ban kia (literally slow-slow walk) which means walk slowly, smoothly and safely.




Brian (pictured above) shares one of his favourite quotes from Nelson Mandela:

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.  If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

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