Differences in semantics between English of the US and Malaysia

I’ve been traveling to Malaysia frequently for the past few years and have compiled a short list of some of the most common differences in words and phrases between that of non-native speakers of English (mostly ethnic Chinese) and native speakers of the United States. I recently read the list off to a Malaysian friend of mine. He and I had a good laugh about it, and he seemed to think they were accurate.

I will point out that I have noticed many (or all) of these differences in other countries of the ASEAN community (Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, for example) – also predominantly from ethnic Chinese. However, as I have spent more time in Malaysia than the others, I will say that I can’t confirm if the differences in the list below are true for all countries outside Malaysia (even among ethnic Chinese).

Lastly, the reason I mention that I’ve noticed these word differences among primarily ethnic Chinese is that had I spent the majority of my time with the ethnic Malays instead, for example, I would likely be hearing different word choices in their spoken English. In other words, the Bahasa Malaysia language is structured one way, and Chinese dialects are structured in their own respective ways. This affects how foreign languages (English, in this case) are spoken and the common mistakes that are made.

I asked Nick Cogan of The Chirco Group to provide some insight on the various Chinese dialects and how this affects how English is spoken as a foreign language. Nick is an old friend of mine. He holds an MA in linguistics, is fluent in Mandarin and has spent more than 6 years in China. This was his reply:

Some [Chinese] dialects are actually different languages; some are just dialects but different enough that each group can, in fact, have different difficulties in English language pronunciation. For example, F and H sounds are understood as interchangeable in one dialect and L and N are interchangeable in another.

Now I will explain how the first language affects which mistakes are made in foreign languages by using Spanish and Portuguese. When native speakers of Spanish are speaking English, they often say things like, “Would you like to take a coffee?”. By contrast, native speakers of English say “have” or “drink” in lieu of “take.” The reason for this common mistake is that for drinking coffee and alcohol, Spanish uses the verb “tomar” (to take) instead of “beber” (to drink). So the verb “take” is often used since the Spanish speaker is doing a literal interpretation from Spanish to English. To throw in yet another twist, Brazilian Portuguese uses tomar and beber more loosely than Spanish does. So a Brazilian would likely ask someone in Portuguese “Você bebe?” (instead of “Você toma?”) to ask someone if they drink alcohol. So when a Brazilian is speaking English and asks someone the same question, s/he might correctly say “Do you drink?” (instead of “Do you take?”) since the literal interpretation from Brazilian Portuguese is closer to English than Spanish.

Much of Peninsular Malaysia was a part of British Malaya so it can only be expected that many of the words would be closer to British than to American English. I showed the table below to Dr. Richard Rhodes, a University of California, Berkeley professor of linguistics, and he confirmed this. He pointed out that

some of these usages are straight British, like petrol, lift, car park, holiday, and, of course, napkin means something quite different, too. The rest are the kinds of things that arise in language contact situations.

I hope you enjoy the list. I enjoyed compiling them through my many conversations in Malaysia.

Malaysia United States
Petrol Gas
I need to put petrol in the car. I need to put gas in the car.
Lift Elevator
Take the lift to the second floor. Take the elevator to the second floor.
(In American English, the word “lift” is perfectly acceptable in place of elevator. The point I intend to stress here is that “elevator” doesn’t appear to be used at all, but everyone understands it).
Car park Parking lot
The car is in the car park. The car is in the parking lot.
Take Eat/drink
Did you take your breakfast?
Did you take your coffee?
Did you eat your breakfast?
Did you drink your coffee?
Is it? Oh yeah? / Really? 
(This is usually used to confirm that something that the other speaker has said is true).
Can. Yes / No problem / It’s OK. / [I/you/we, etc.] can/may. 
[In response to a request for permission, for example…]
Can.
[In response to a request for permission, for example…]
Yes, we can. No problem.
…for holiday …on/for vacation
Did you go to Japan for holiday? Did you go to Japan on/for vacation?
 Meat Beef 
(Meat in this sense refers specifically to beef. In American English, chicken can be meat; pork can be meat, etc. I have also noticed that native speakers of various languages of the Middle East refer to beef as “meat”).
Last time Before
Last time I sell you these goods, I need your signature. Before I sell you these goods, I need your signature.
Tissue Napkin 
(Even at the dinner table in Malaysia, napkins are referred to as “tissues”). (In American English, “tissues” usually refer to something you blow your nose with).
Never mind It’s alright / It’s OK / That’s OK, etc.
[In response to a “thank you,” for example…] Never mind. You’re welcome! [In response to a “thank you,” for example..] It’s alright. You’re welcome!
Name card Business card
Here is my name card. Here is my business card.
Intercom  Phone
I called you on the intercom. I called you on the phone.
Aircon Air conditioning
We can turn on the aircon if you are hot. We can turn on the air conditioning if you are hot.
Specs Glasses
You need specs to help you see.
(This borrows from the word “spectacles.”)
You need glasses to help you see.
Because why… Because… / And that’s why…
We decided not to buy because why the price is too high.
The price is too high because why we decided not to buy.
We decided not to buy because the price is too high.
The price is too high, and that’s why we decided not to buy.
I don’t think so… I don’t think…
I don’t think so the mailman came today I don’t think the mailman came today.

 

See also:

Speaking and Writing

SPEAKING:

  • Fungibility and Cryptocurrencies
    In June 2020, I gave a webinar presentation for Blockchain New Zealand on fungibility as a property of money and a comparative analysis of various types of money historically: from seashells, to fiat, to gold, to cigarettes, to fiat, and of course, cryptocurrencies.
  • In addition, I have given presentations to think tanks and organizations in Spain, Nigeria and the United States on work that I have done on the subject of rationality in economics.

WRITING:

Here are a few articles I have written, some with abstracts and some without. They include outlets in Brazil, Italy, Malaysia, New Zealand, United States, South Africa, and Spain.

  • Economic Lockdowns Kill People–Yes Literally
    May, 2020 – «Foundation for Economic Education»
    As the title suggests, I explain how shutting down the planet as a reaction to COVID literally kills people – something political leaders around the world seem to be all too happy to ignore. Making a decision to not shut down an economy isn’t merely trading lives in favor of economy. In fact, in both cases (both without lockdowns and with lockdowns), the trade-offs involve the loss of human lives.

    • The above article was also republished by a South African gay men’s magazine called «Gay Pages» here, published in Spanish by «FEE en Español» here, in Italian by «Istituto Bruno Leoni» here, and in Portuguese by «Jornal Hora Extra» here.
  • Politicians, immigration and the God complex
    October, 2018 – «National Business Review»
    Here I provide an analysis of Australia and NZ’s immigration laws through the lens of Hayek’s knowledge problem. (Content behind paywall but can be accessed for free by creating free account).
  • A few of my articles are published on The New Zealand Initiative’s blog. For example, here, here and here.
  • International Relations Glossary in Portuguese and Spanish
    July, 2013 – Formerly published on «MyPoliSciLab.com» and «InternationalRelations.com». Content now published here on my own website.
    For IR scholars and students who also happen to be “latinoamericanistas,” this list of translations of IR terms in all three languages (English, Portuguese and Spanish) serves as a great resource.
  • Sowell’s Visions
    December, 2013 – «Foundation for Economic Education»
    In this article I summarize Thomas Sowell’s book A Conflict of Visions and Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate and explain the importance of understanding the concepts of opposing world visions when discussing often controversial topics such as economics and politics.

Resources for Brazilianists

Organizations Dedicated to Individual Liberties and Free Markets in Brazil:

International Trade & Business:

Economics and Development:

International Relations and Politics:

Head of State:

Educational Resources:

Other:

See also:

Lonely Planet “Thank You’s”

For those who enjoy using Lonely Planet travel guides from time to time when traveling internationally, you may enjoy this like I did. When I’m abroad and realize that bus routes, for example, have changed from the last print of the book I always email Lonely Planet the updates. Lonely Planet nicely mentions names of people who help in this fashion in a “Thank you” section at the end of the guidebooks. For fun, I’ve randomly shown off my name to friends while in bookstores a couple of times in the past.

So far my name has been mentioned in the following books:

I guess I’ll say a “Thank you” to Google for letting me know that my name has been mentioned in these publications.