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Toastmasters speech #6: Lost in Translation

Language. The oldest and most lasting form of human communication. The thing that sets us apart from other creatures roaming the face of Earth.

Dear mister toastmasters, ladies and gentlemen, I love languages and today I would like to share with you why I love them. Thanks to my incredible fortune of being born in Malaysia, a multicultural country, I grew up speaking three languages: Mandarin, English and Malay. Over the past 10 years, I have travelled and lived in different parts of Europe. And along the way, I have picked up a few other languages, soaking up their beauty, their idiosyncrasies, and most of all, the features that make each language special, or sometimes, utterly and exasperatingly, WEIRD.

Take Mandarin, for example.

Mandarin is a musical language. Every word in mandarin can be pronounced in four tones, and they all have very different and completely unrelated meanings.

Take the word ‘ma’, for example. The four tones for this ‘word’ are ma1, ma2, ma3, ma4. Easy, right? The first tone, 妈, means ‘mother’. And the third, 马, means horse.

I don’t know about you, but mother and horse are not exactly the kind of things you would like to confuse. Especially when you are meeting your Chinese girlfriend’s mother for the first time. I know, because it happened to Glenn, my husband. Now that is a story for another day, but for your benefit, here’s the gist:

In Mandarin, ‘妈,你好‘ means a very innocuous ‘Hello, mother.’ But, if you screw up the tone, and said ‘马,你好’, you are basically calling my mum a horse. Not very charming, really.

Speaking of charming, I don’t think there is another language in the world that is more charming and suave than French.

The French are a romantic bunch and their language reflects that. It is also a very charismatic language, and not just in romance. Even cursing in French, to quote the great ‘Matrix’ movie, is like “wiping your arse with silk.”

Given the versatility of the French language, it is no surprise that Glenn and I decided that we will get married in France. What we haven’t thought of, was the fact that, French is also one of the most diplomatic languages in the world. What this means is, it is incredibly courteous and gracious, but also painfully long-winded. I think its mantra is “if you can say something in 10 words instead of three to mean the same thing, say it in 11.”

So we were very lucky that both our witnesses for our wedding day were French speakers, because we both sure did not understand a word of what the mayor was saying when she read out pages after pages from our wedding contract. We were trying our best to keep a straight face while she spewed forth strands of silk from her mouth, when my witness, Maria, elbowed me, hard, in my arm.

“What? What’s happening?”

“Say yes! Now!”

“Oh!” I finally came to my senses. And with the biggest grin on my face, turned to the mayor, “Oui.”

Until today I still have no idea what I signed myself into. The only word I remembered from her speech was ‘fidélité’. I think it means fidelity, but hey, with the French, you never know, do you?

And then of course, there’s German. My second adopted language.

And I must say, sorry Margrit, German has got to be one of the least romantic languages in the world. It is a very efficient and precise language, which makes it incredibly effective, but it’s not my language of choice when it comes to romance. It also has some words which are very similar to the English language, but have totally different meaning.

I once went out with this German guy. His English wasn’t very good but was better than my German at that time so he insisted that we converse in English. Fine by me. So we were at this big festival, and were feeling slightly peckish. We were walking by this food stall when he suddenly turned to me, and in the most earnest, sincere and serious tone only a German engineer could muster, said to me “I am becoming a sausage.”

I stared at him, wide eyed, blinked a few times, completely confused and taken aback, millions of thoughts ran through my head “Is this some kind of German joke that I don’t get yet? Is it a euphemism? Or os it a philosophical question? OMG IS THIS A TEST?!”

While I stood there, stunned and silent, still blinking away at him like an idiot, he continued and said “Do you want to become a sausage too?”

“No way! Now he wants me to become one too? This is moving way too fast! I mean, I really like him, he seems cute and smart and funny and… wait a second ….” And then it hit me. My date, while being really cute and possibly starving at that point waiting for this silly chinese girl who blinks a bit too much to answer his question, doesn’t really want to become a sausage. The verb ‘bekommen’ in German means ‘to get’. And he has mistakenly ‘translated’ it into the English word, ‘to become’. My date merely wants to get a sausage, not become one!

Phew, all is well, world order restored! And to answer the question on all your minds – yes we did get the sausage, and it was delicieuse.

So that’s my story with languages. With each new language I learn, I am opening up my eyes and mind a bit more to the world. And what I have seen so far has been truly mesmerizing. Amusing and maddening at times, but mesmerizing.

One of my favourite authors, Stephen Fry, puts it best:

“Language is my mistress, my wife, my pen-friend, my check-out girl. Language is the breath of God, the dew on a fresh apple; it’s the soft rain of dust that falls into a shaft of morning sun when you pull from an old bookshelf a forgotten volume of erotic diaries. Language is the faint scent of urine on a pair of boxer shorts; it’s a half-remembered childhood birthday party, a creak on the stair, a spluttering match held to a frosted pane.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I love languages.

Thank you.


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