Speaking Spanish

When are you fluent enough to be able to say that you are a speaker of a language? In my case, I can confidently say that I am an English speaker as it is the language that I generally write and read in. I can also claim to be a Malay speaker with Malay being my native language. But even between those two, my fluency in different registers (levels of formality), modes (mediums of communication be it written or spoken) and social contexts vary. As I have written in a previous post, I had quite a challenge sitting for the Malay oral exam even though I use colloquial Malay in my everyday speech without hesitation. Similarly, I have had moments during a strictly English conversation when I wanted to voice a specific thought that comes to my mind in Malay (or even worse, Terengganuspeak) but I had to quickly rummage for an English equivalent as there is no perfect substitute.

And these situations often makes me wonder, had I not taken most of my vocabulary from the English dictionary and had Malay not been my mother tongue, would I be confident enough to call myself an English or Malay speaker?

These questions are bothering me off-late because I had just been working on a video project with my brother where I teach Spanish through songs for Utusan’s freshly launched youth section, Upster. I’ve received surprised comments from people I know that they never knew that I could speak Spanish. Which makes me wonder, could I?

Several years back my siblings and I were on TV Al Hijrah’s morning talk show, ‘Assalamualaikum’, where we talked about our attempts at learning different foreign languages. We mentioned that we have a WhatsApp group where we all typed in the basic form of our respective languages with creative combinations to make up for words that we did not know (I, for one, had used ‘piscina grande natural’ to describe a lake).

And although we hadn’t done that for a while, my sister, Anisah, who studies Portuguese, and I still do speak a bit of the languages we learn with each other for practice. My mother would excitedly answer “Sí, claro,” whenever I ask for a ‘tenedor’. And since I had often offered to fry eggs for Ali, he now hears ‘huevo’ in everything that I say. While doing chores, I turn on Pocoyó en español or Plaza Sesamo. Sometimes I even watch shows in Spanish without the subtitles and while I am not at the point where I can understand everything, I can definitely get most of what is going on. And of course all four of us still do our Duolingo practices.

As of now, I don’t think I am close to being able to call myself a fluent Spanish speaker but I am decently confident that if I were to be dropped in the middle of Mexico (for my Spanish resources are usually based in Latin American Spanish), I can understand and make myself understood well enough. My conjugations are incomplete, I’m still not completely sure when should I use the subjunctive mood and my Spanish vocabulary is like the nursery of a newly expecting mother, still somewhat bare; but new things are constantly being added in and every visit is accompanied by a flurry of excitement.

I hadn’t been the best of learners. I started dabbling in Spanish when I was very young. The first word I remember learning was ‘fin’ that my mother taught me before I even went to school. When I was ten, I fluttered about the US airports with a pen and a notebook, busily copying the bilingual signs I could see. I still have my notes from my Dora The Explorer and Barney days, with entertaining spellings, like ‘komotiyama’ (como te llama – what is your name?) and ‘elargoiris’ (el arco iris – the rainbow), and when I was fourteen, my mother bought me a book on the basics of Spanish and I was ecstatic to find that I had been reading Spanish correctly even before I knew the hard and fast rules on where and when to stress a syllable.

But even after all that, whenever I am alone in my room and I want to speak the little Spanish that I know to myself, I’ll often repeat “Espérate, necesito tiempo para pensar,” – wait, I need time to think. I know that I’m butchering my preterit and future tenses (let’s not even talk about participles) and I still mix and match different words to talk about things I hadn’t learned.

There’s a part of me that often gets upset with myself as throughout this time, I could have been much better at my Spanish. However there’s also a side that is proud to know that even though I hadn’t done my best, it’s something that I still keep close and visit often unlike some of my interests that I’ve picked and dropped throughout the years. And one day, I’d like to be able to speak well enough to understand the nuances that comes with learning a new language and see the world through the lens of el idioma español con toda su cultura.

But until then, I’m perfectly happy with saying, “Necesito un bolígrafo nuevo, este no funciona,” just to hear Ali’s confused voice asking me “You need eggs?”

You can watch my ‘Kelas Bahasa’ video on Utusan Upster here.




Back in 2008 when I first started this blog, I wrote an article about ‘Emotions’. Back then, I was far less adept at expressing something so intricately woven in my head by penning them down into words. I was explaining how I saw my emotions as liquid dripping into separate bowls, each with their own dripping and evaporation rates. Some of my emotions like joy and anger filled up their respective bowls faster but evaporate just as quickly while others like sadness and yearning dripped ever so slowly but when the other bowls have all dried up, trickles of sadness lingered still at the sides of the bowl.

However everything was fine as long as my emotions were contained within the bowls but as they fill up, I had a harder time balancing my actions. It also wasn’t helpful that some bowls were smaller than others and when I assumed that I still had space to contain them, they started spilling over and an emotional flood is something I wanted to avoid.

My mother didn’t understand what I was talking about but she figured perhaps I could do it better in writing and suggested it as a writing assignment for my blog but it was just as convoluted and confusing so instead I did a simpler writing on my emotions. Even there I talked about my struggles with managing my emotions but there is a lot more to it than just the basic emotions. I have a rather idealised and romantic side that tries to collect and understand the complexity that is human emotions and my journals are often witnesses to my desperate scramble for emotional intelligibility. And one of the emotions that often haunted me was friendship.

When I first went to school, I amused my parents by announcing the number of friends I then have by the end of the day and listing them all, one by one. My definition of friends then was what I would now call acquaintances, people I know and can recognise by face and by name. Throughout my early school years, that soon evolved into people I enjoy being with and spend time with and being the excitable child that I was, I had a lot of people whom I called friends.

Friends, friendship and social circles were topics that often popped up again and again throughout the school year. “Who’s your best friend?” was one of those generic questions that is thrown without a second thought. Arguments often come with threats of breaking friendship ties and who you associate yourself with could potentially affect your relationship with others. It’s nowhere as vicious as it could get later in secondary school but the beginnings of politicking had started to show with some kids grasping the concept, and starting to manipulate it, earlier than others.

However at the same time, everyone is talking about how friendship is a selfless act of love and care. That a friend is someone special you care for through thick and thin. The term ‘BFF’ or ‘Best Friends Forever’ expresses the everlasting nature that friendship is supposed to be. Teachers would remind us that “a friend in need is a friend indeed”. And throughout it all, my mind collected the many facets of this beguiling word and kept redefining what friendship meant to me.

When I first moved school, everything was turned onto its head. While some students come and go and my social circle evolved with them, I had never considered the fact that I would instantly be separated with those I called my friends. I had no problems with making new friends, I always had room for more fun but I felt like a traitor to those I left behind. Isn’t friendship supposed to persevere through anything and everything?

I kept in contact with my previous classmates through letters passed through mutual friends and once I started homeschooling, we moved to email. However just as time salves wounds, time too blurs the images of the past. I adapted to my new life and learned to understand my siblings whose characters are different from my own in significant ways and I had that relationship to entertain my thoughts. I compared it to the friendship I had with my friends back at school – or at least the shadow of it.

Because even as I stubbornly held to the strings that once tied us together, the correspondence began to trickle out. The innocent blank minds of a child could find connections through everything but as they grow older, their own individuality carve out different people and unfortunately sometimes you find yourself staring into the eyes of a stranger – and that broke my heart but I could not rationally explain why.

It was during these years that my journals were filled with my questions on what it means to be a friend. If it is all about love and care, what difference does it make for if you could no longer get along with someone if it is what is best for both of you? If I do love them, why does it hurt to let them go when they need to?

During one of my ruminations, I was reminded of the day when I stared at the red tendrils of the sun’s rays creeping up from beneath the horizon. Both of my hands were pressed onto the window as I watched the glorious sunrise from the plane with my family as we soared into the sky. I remember my eleven year old self wishing that I could have my friends with me as well so they too could see. And I understood that all along, a friend to me was someone I wanted to share things with and someone who would share things with me. Someone who was a bit like a home that I can turn to when things feel off. Someone with whom I felt like I belonged.

And that revelation came with a shocking sub clause – friendship to me was selfish in an altruistic coat.

After all, aren’t history and legend both full of tales of friendship being broken because of what could be seen as selfish reasons? If a friend you have borrowed a book you love and returned it to you, half ragged, doesn’t that feel like a betrayal of friendship? If your friend knowingly hurt you, won’t the people around you advise you that the person is “not truly your friend”?

But is it really wrong for it to be so? To be a friend to someone but only because that the person would do the same to you? To care for someone but only if they reciprocate that care too? Does the Malay proverb “berbuat baik berpada-pada, berbuat jahat jangan sekali” (be sparing with your kindness but never be malicious) support this?

And is it wrong to have a different base for your friendship, a different view and intention? To be there for someone always without expecting a return in kind? To love and care for someone for an altogether different reason and assume no gratitude?

Several years back, a good friend of my father’s, Uncle Nisar, came to visit us here in Malaysia. My fondest memory of Uncle Nisar was when he shared his house with us for a week both times we were in California. We were ecstatic that this time, we get to be his host for his special visit and we tried to make it a memory for him to treasure.

Before he left, Uncle Nisar gave my dad a heartfelt thanks to which my dad laughed and said that it was nothing more than what he did for us. And the reply he gave my dad was that what he did was sincerely because he wanted to give us a pleasant experience, that whatever happens after, it wouldn’t matter and he did not expect anything in return. And that really stuck with me ever since.

For me, I believe the best friendships are those guided through one’s love for Allah and anything else is far above me to say. I mull and muse over them and I think I would always be on the lookout for the many ways a bond is forged but if the steps you take are backed by faith in Allah Almighty, I am sure that in the biggest picture that stretches beyond our sights, your friendship is be a beautiful one.

And to all of you who share such wonderful friendships with those you love, I wish you all a Happy Friendship Day.