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?”