Posted by: Michael | December 13, 2009

I always sleep late…

This came up during one of my classes. A Malaysian would understand the title of this post to mean something different (and almost opposite to the intended meaning) than a native English speaker would.

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? The Malay word for “sleep” is tidur. The Chinese word for “sleep” is 睡觉 (shuì jiào).

However, both tidur and 睡觉 have two translations in English. The first is “sleep”. “Sleep” means “to rest in a state of reduced consciousness”. For example: “I only sleep for five hours every night”. “Sleep” can be used to say how long you rest for (in a state of reduced consciousness).

So you can use the word “sleep” in English to specify the duration that you “rest in a state of reduced consciousness” but not the time at which you start to rest. This brings us to the second translation of tidur and 睡觉.

To specify when you start to sleep, you must use the expression “go to bed” (“go to sleep” is also possible although the usage differs slightly). For example: “I go to bed at midnight every night”.

So when you use tidur or睡觉 to talk about the time that you started to sleep, you must translate these words as “go to bed”.

Semalam saya tidur pada pukul sebelas or 昨天晚上我十一点睡觉 must be translated into English as “I go to bed at 11 o’clock” not “I sleep at 11 o’clock”. The latter sentence sounds as strange in English as it would to a Malaysian for an English speaker to say “semalam pergi ke katil pada pukul sebelas” or “昨天晚上我十一点去床”.

Which brings us back to the title of our post. “To sleep” means “to rest in a state of reduced consciousness”. As I mentioned earlier, you use “sleep” to say how long you remain asleep.  So “I always sleep late” means “I always sleep for a long time” (meaning that you don’t get up until the late morning or possibly the early afternoon).

However, a Malaysian who, upon reading the title, immediately translates it as “saya sentiasa tidur lewat” or “我总是很晚睡觉”, would understand it to mean “It is always late when I start to sleep” or, in proper English “I always go to bed late”. This stems from the two usages of tidur and 睡觉 in Malay and Chinese and not knowing how to properly use each of them.

To sum up: You use “sleep” to talk about how long you rest for. You use “go to bed” when you specify the time at which you start to rest (in a state of reduced consciousness).

PS: For those who want more information about “go to sleep”: “go to bed” can also mean “to put onself in one’s bed”. However, while you might put yourself in your bed, you might not go to sleep. For example, you could read a book. “Go to sleep” cannot be interpreted in any other way except “to fall asleep”.

For example “I went to bed at 11 o’clock and read for an hour. Then I went to sleep”.

Posted by: Michael | November 20, 2009

The truth about bungalows

The term ‘bungalow’ is very often misused by Malaysians, even those who speak good English. The same is true for Singaporeans.

So what is a bungalow? The definition from Wiktionary is as follows:

bungalow (plural bungalows) A small house or cottage usually having a single story.

A bungalow is a relatively small house, which is either one storey, or has a second storey built into an attic area (space above the ceiling), containing a dormer window (effectively one and a half storeys). However, a bungalow does not have two stories, and a two-storeyed house cannot be called a ‘bungalow’

Here is a picture of a bungalow:

A bungalow in California, USA

The correct term for what Malaysians erroneously call a “bungalow” would be a “two-storeyed house” or a “detached house” (one that is not connected to the house(s) beside it).

Posted by: Michael | September 11, 2009

Can I have your company chop?

In the business world of Malaysia, you will find people asking for a “chop”. Foreign businesspeople would be totally bewildered hearing this, and would wonder what on earth these people are talking about.

They are referring to a stamp. The reason that “chop” is used to mean ‘stamp’ in Malaysia is that it is a corrupted version of the Hindi word छाप (chhaap), which means ‘seal’ or ‘stamp’.

The word ‘chop’ in English has the following meanings (from Wiktionary):

to chop (verb)

  1. (transitive) To cut into pieces with short, vigorous cutting motions.
    chop wood
    chop an onion
  2. (transitive) To sever with an axe or similar implement.
    Chop off his head.

chop (noun)

  1. A cut of meat, often containing a section of a rib.
    I only like lamb chops with mint jelly.
  2. A blow with an axe, cleaver, or similar utensil.
    It should take just one good chop to fell the sapling.

So next time you need to ask someone to stamp something, DO NOT ask them for a “chop” as that would mean that you’re asking them for a blow with an axe! Ask for a “stamp” – use the proper English word.

Posted by: Michael | August 19, 2009

“It’s” and “Its”

Even native English speakers get these two words confused. So I’ll provide a guide on how to use them correctly.

“It’s” is a contraction (short form) of “it is” (它是/ia adalah). This short form is usually used in speaking, for example: “It’s a nice day today”. When you write formal letters or documents, it is better to use the full form “It is”.

“Its” is the possessive form of “It” (它的/ia punya). “His” is the possessive form of “He” and “Her” is the possessive form of  “She”. So “Its” is to “It” what “His” is to “He”. It is used when something belongs to or is associated with an animal or an inanimate object. For example: “The dog wagged its tail”. (“It” is often used to refer to animals, as their gender is often unknown, however, pet owners generally refer to their cat or dog with either “he” or “she” depending on their pet’s gender)

So if you want to say “It is”, then write “It’s”. If you’re referring to an inanimate object, an animal, a city, a country possessing something or having something associated with it, use “Its”.

See if you can correct the errors in these sentences (answers will be provided below in a comment). One of the sentences is correct and requires no changes.

Malaysia must protect it’s own interests.

“What’s that?” “Oh, don’t worry, its just my dog”.

“Oh, no! Its raining!”

See that small animal there? Its a squirrel. Notice it’s long, bushy tail?

The cat went over to its saucer and drank its milk.

“Its late – I have to go. Thanks for the dinner!”

Posted by: Michael | August 12, 2009

“Fill up”, “Fill in” and “Fill out”

These expressions are very commonly confused by Malaysians. I’ve even seen a sign in a bank with this mistake.

I’ll provide the definitions of each of these terms (from Wiktionary):

Fill in – (transitive) to complete a form or questionnaire with requested information.

Fill out – (transitive) to complete a form or questionnaire with requested information.

Fill up– 1. (chiefly of a fuel tank) to make full. 2. to become full

So we see that “fill in” and “fill out” mean to complete a questionnaire, survey or form with the necessary information. “Fill up” means to make something full, generally with a liquid. As mentioned by the dictionary, it is often used to refer to a car’s fuel tank. For example “I need to fill up my car”.

“Fill up” CANNOT be used to mean “complete a form”. This is wrong. Can a form hold liquid? (Well, possibly if you rolled it into a cone it could, but then it would be ruined). Since it cannot hold liquid, it is not appropriate to use “fill up”. The appropriate expression to use with a form is “fill in” or “fill out” (even though “in” and “out” are opposites, “fill in” and “fill out” both have the same meaning).

So please don’t ask anyone to “fill up a form” because they will not be able to do it. Ask them to “fill in” a form or “fill out” a form.

Posted by: Michael | August 5, 2009

“To stay” and “to live”

These two words are commonly confused by Malaysians. I will start off by providing the definitions of each (as per The Oxford Online Dictionary) along with the Malay and Chinese translations:

Live (Malay tinggal, Chinese 住在) – make one’s home in a particular place or with a particular person.
Example: I live in Kuala Lumpur or I live with my brother.

Stay (Malay duduk, Chinese 留) – live somewhere temporarily as a visitor or guest.
Example: I’m staying at the J.W. Marriot Hotel.

So we see that live is permanent – if you live somewhere, that place is your home. That is where all your things are. If you go away on holiday or on a business trip, you will stay somewhere, most likely a hotel. You don’t make your home in a hotel, so it is necessary to use the word ‘stay’ here. When you have finished your holiday or trip, you will return to your home – to the place where you live.

However, many Malaysians use the word ‘stay’ to mean ‘live’, not understanding the difference between the two words. Therefore, a Malaysian would ask someone “Where do you stay?” This is WRONG. The correct question to ask is “Where do you live?”.

When referring to the present, the verb “stay” is usually used in the Present Continuous tense, for example “I’m staying in Kuala Lumpur for 5 days”. This is because “stay” refers to continuous action which only takes place for a short period of time. The verb “stay” is not generally used a lot in the Present Simple tense. It is generally only used to describe repetitive actions, for example “When I go to Singapore, I stay at the Marina Mandarin Hotel”. This statement tells us that the speaker regularly goes to Singapore, and every time he goes there, he stays at the Marina Mandarin Hotel.

So the next time you need to ask someone “Kamu tinggal mana?” or “你住在哪里?” in English, remember to say “Where do you live?”

Posted by: Michael | August 2, 2009

Can you pass me the blue colour book?

“I’m using the red colour one”
“I need a green colour pen”

It is common to hear these kind of sentences in Malaysia, especially in an office or possibly a clothing store.

Many Malaysians (especially Chinese) add the word colour after the name of the colour, as shown in the sentences above. This does not sound natural in English.

I am fairly certain that this mistake comes from a literal translation of the Chinese. In Chinese, the words for colours are two-character compound nouns. The first character is the name of the colour. The second character is 色 (sè), the Chinese character for ‘colour’.

Thus, we have:

红色 (hóng sè) – red
蓝色 (lán sè) – blue
黄色 (huáng sè) – yellow

All these words have the character色 (sè) after the name for the colour, so a literal translation would be ‘red colour’, ‘blue colour’ or ‘yellow colour’. However, you cannot always translate literally from one language to another. This is one of the most important things in language learning – learning the differences between your own language and the language you are learning, and when to translate literally.

Generally, when you describe something in Chinese as being a certain colour, you use the two-character compound. So, the title of this post in Chinese would be “你可不可以把蓝色的书给我?” (nǐ kě bù kěyǐ bǎ lán sè de shū gěi wǒ?) The word used for “blue” is the compound ‘lán sè’, with the word for ‘colour’ on the end the way it is done in Chinese. There are exceptions to this rule, such as 红葡萄酒 (hóng pútáo jiǔ) meaning ‘red wine’, but in most cases the two-character compound with ‘sè’ is used

However, this is not the way that it is done in English. It sounds unnatural and strange to hear someone talk about a ‘blue colour dress’ or a ‘red colour toothbrush’. The colour names in English function as adjectives the way they are, without any need to add the word ‘colour’ as is done in Chinese. So the correct way to write the three sentences is as follows:

“Can you pass me the blue book?”
“I’m using the red one.”
“I need a green pen.”

If you are writing a description of something (e.g. for a novel), then you may use the expression “green in colour” or “red in colour” to be descriptive. For example:

“Her faded dress was red in colour and it looked too big for her”.

However, this is not generally done in speaking, so avoid using expressions like these in spoken English. It is possible to use ‘gold coloured‘ or ‘silver coloured‘ to mean something which has the colour of gold or silver, but is not made of the metal gold or silver. For example, a gold-coloured necklace looks like a gold necklace but is not made of the precious metal gold.

To sum up: We do not add the word ‘colour’ after colour names in English. Therefore, you talk about “a blue dress”, NOT a “blue colour dress”.

Posted by: Michael | July 30, 2009

“Spoilt” and “Broken”

The English word “spoil” has three meanings.

1. To ruin.  For example: ‘She spoilt the movie by telling us the ending’.
2. To pamper. For example: ‘That boy is so spoilt. His parents buy him everything he asks for’.
3. (Of food) To go off or become bad. For example: ‘That food will spoil if you leave it out’.

However, there is a tendency among Malaysians to use “spoil” to mean “broken”. This is because the Malay word rosak means both ‘broken’ (with regard to a computer, television, door, etc) and ‘spoilt’ with regard to food. Thus, rosak could be used in the following contexts.

Peti sejuk rosak (the fridge is broken)
Makanan di dalam beg itu rosak (the food in that bag is spoilt or The food in that bag has gone off).

Rosak can only be translated as ‘spoilt’ in the second sentence, as it is relating to food. However, it would be better to use an expression such as “gone off”. Rosak cannot be translated as ‘spoilt’ in the first sentence since you don’t eat the fridge.

For example, if you are in a computer shop looking at second hand computers. You see one that you like. You ask the salesman about the price, and he says “That one spoil already”. This is a wrong use of the word ‘spoil’. The salesman is translating from his native Malay and he is not aware that the word rosak has two translations in English. (The use of ‘already’ is also wrong; it’s a literal translation of the Malay word telah which is used to form the past tense).

Here is any easy guide to translating rosak from Malay to English.

Is the thing which is rosak edible and normally eaten?

Yes – rosak = ‘spoilt’ or ‘gone off’
No – rosak = ‘broken’

One other point I wish to make: In Malaysia, if something, for example an elevator or a door, is broken, there may be a sign saying “ROSAK” on it. If you wanted to write the sign in English, it is more natural and more correct to write “OUT OF ORDER”. I have never seen a sign saying “BROKEN” in New Zealand or Australia before.

Posted by: Michael | July 26, 2009

“Last time I…”

The expression “last time” is one of the most common expressions that is used wrongly in Malaysia.

The Chinese translation of “last time” is 上次. Not 以前.

While there is no direct Malay translation of the term, “lepas” is used to mean “last” in the sense of “last week, last month” (minggu lepas, bulan lepas) etc.

However, the expression “last time” is often used to translate the Malay word “dahulu”. This is wrong. “Dahulu” means “previously”, “in the past” or “ago” when used with a specific time word (e.g. dua tahun dahulu = two years ago).

“Last time” refers to a specific occurrence of something. It cannot refer to a general time in the past. For that we use “previously” or “in the past”. “Last time” specifically means “on the last occurrence”. For example, a teacher might say to his or her students “Last time we studied the Present Perfect tense”, referring to the last class that he or she taught. The previous class was a specific occurrence of something, and so we can use “last time” here.

However, you cannot say “Last time I was a manager”. This is a wrong use of the term. Being a manager occurs over a particular time period, so we cannot use “last time” here. While you could say “Previously I was a manager” or “In the past, I was a manager”, I think that the best term to use here would be used to: “I used to be a manager”.

So remember: Last time ≠dahulu. Dahulu = “previously” or “in the past”, but in many cases it is better to use “used to”.

Also, I want to bring up the following point. “Last” has two meanings in English. These are:

1. Previous
2. Final

For example, you could say “Last week I went to a sale at Mid Valley Megamall and bought some shoes. This week is the last week of the sale, so if you want to get some, you should go before Friday.

In the first sentence, the word “last” means “previous” – the previous week, i.e. the week before this week. In the second sentence, the word “last” means “final” – this is the final week of the sale, after which the goods return to their normal prices. In some languages, including Malay, each meaning has a different word. In Malay, the first meaning, “Previous” is translated by “lepas” while the second meaning is translated by “terakhir”.

Posted by: Michael | July 20, 2009

All’s Well that EndS Well

In English, we have a distinction between singular (one of something) and plural (two or more of something). While there are some exceptions, the majority of plurals end in –s. For example: books, cakes, pens, cars. Therefore when you use a noun in English, you need to make the distinction between singular and plural.

Chinese has no plural – the same form is used no matter how many nouns there are. Malay only uses a plural (made by repeating the noun) when it is absolutely necessary to show that there is more than one of something. Tamil does have a plural but I’m not sure if it’s used in colloquial spoken Tamil. But in English, there is a distinction which in most cases is indicated by the ending.

English also has a little thing called Subject-Verb Agreement. This means that when you use a verb in the Present Simple Tense with ‘he’, ‘she’ , ‘it’ or a person’s name, you must add an –s to the verb. For example: He eats, she talks, John drinks. This ending is crucial to writing and speaking proper English.

Many verbs form the Simple Past Tense with –ed. For example: I moved, he started, we walked. This ending is also crucial to writing and speaking proper English.

Why am I mentioning this? Because many Malaysians have trouble with this. Since Chinese and Malay verbs have only one form (我吃wŏ chī, 她吃tā chī, saya makan, kami makan), the concept of changing the verb for a particular subject is foreign to Chinese and Malay people. Tamil has a complex system of verb endings (there is a different ending for each pronoun), so this concept will be more familiar to Tamil speakers.

When writing, many Malaysians leave off the –s ending for third person nouns and the –s ending for verbs with ‘he’ or ‘she’. Many also leave off the –ed ending in Simple Past Tense verbs. And even if they understand that these endings must be added, and add them when writing, many Malaysians do not pronounce these endings when speaking. Even if they are reading from a passage with the endings added, many Malaysians still do not pronounce them. For example, the following sentence:

“Mary goes shopping every Friday and buys books” would be read aloud as “Mary go shopping every Friday and buy book”, even though the endings are written down in the text!

Or ‘He moved to KL last year” would be read aloud as “He move to KL last year”.

What is worse is that some people don’t even pronounce the –’s in contractions like he‘s and it‘s.

To recap: These endings are crucial to speaking and writing good and proper English. If you want to speak English well, you need to master these endings and pronounce them properly each time you come across them.

Older Posts »