Early in our travels, I figured out that learning even a few words of the local language makes things so much easier.
I could tell the vendor that I like my durian very ripe. That I don’t like sweet durians, so please don’t open one and expect me to buy it because that’s just an awkward situation. I could barter over the price. I could thank them. It was just better.
But the problem, if you’re traveling in Durianland, is that there are so many different languages to learn. Over the years I’ve picked up and forgotten a smattering of Thai, Sri Lankan, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Kannada (a regional language in India).
The only language that has really stuck with me is Bahasa Malayu, perhaps because I’ve spent the most time in Malaysia and Indonesia, or perhaps because Malayu is really easy (no conjugations!).
But as I learned Malayu, I began to realize that it wasn’t helping me communicate with durian sellers. Very often (and there’s no census data on this, just my experience) durian sellers are of Chinese descent. They speak some variant of Chinese.
Chinese is infinitely more intimidating than Malayu. There’s the problem of tonal words, and nasal pitches. And then there was the problem of choosing which language to learn.
“Chinese” actually refers to a grouping of five language families so distinct from one another that people who speak Mandarin can’t understand the other four.
Once I figured that out, I couldn’t decide which Chinese language I should try to learn. Then a friend gave me a tip-off: most durian sellers speak Hokkien.
Last summer, I began learning a smattering of Hokkien. It was just as hard as I was afraid it would be, but also far more fun.
Now I’m really learning Hokkien using the specialized Durian Introductory Course that Timothy Tye has created with us durian lovers in mind — a Hokkien course just for durian freaks!
Why Tim Wants Us To Learn Hokkien
Tim is the author on the definitive Penang tourism website, Penang Travel Tips.
The best way to describe Tim’s passion for Hokkien is local pride meets impressive linguistic nerdom (ask Tim about diacritics) and a desire to unite the many diverse people of Malaysia, including foreigners.
Here’s Tim introducing the program.
Where People Speak Hokkien
Don’t think that Hokkien is just a Penang thing.
Ethnologue thinks there are 47 million Hokkien speakers, and only half of them still live in China. Here are some fun stats I uncovered about where Hokkien may be useful in fulfilling our durian desires:
- Hokkien is the largest linguistic group among Malaysian Chinese. A 2010 census put their numbers at 1,848,211, twice that of people who speak Mandarin (in Malaysia).
- Hokkien is also the largest linguistic group among the Singaporean Chinese. The 2000 Singapore census reported that Hokkiens constituted 41% of the Chinese population.
- In Penang, Hokkien is the lingua franca and even police officers learn the language.
- 98% of the Chinese population in the Philippines speaks Hokkien (is this for real, Ethnologue?)
- The Hokkiens constitute the largest dialect group among the Chinese among Thailand’s Phuket, Songkhla, and Satun.
Join Me and Timothy on Memrise
I just want to say it up front: Memrise is free. You don’t need a credit card, and neither Tim nor I get a penny from Memrise. They don’t have an affiliate program — I checked.
I’m basically just asking you to join our study group. Where does that put me on the nerd Richter scale?
Memrise is a free language learning app for your phone or desktop. It’s basically creatively composed flashcards with pretty colors. It comes with audio that reads the words to you in Tim’s perfect, nasal sing-song (the audio really is Tim).
The program keeps track of words you’ve learned, sends you emails to remind you to practice, and most importantly, tallies up your points.
I’ve been playing diligently for a few months, and so far I’m loving it.
I keep thinking about how astonished the next durian seller will look when this white girl casually asks, “Cit1-leh1 du3rian2 an1cnua1 beh33?”
Or even better, a perfectly articulated “Thank-you.”
To make learning even more fun, I’m offering a few prizes.