KOTA KINABALU: A group of Chinese tourists goes past a stall at the open-air seafood restaurant next to the Central Market in Sabah’s capital when a man in short hair and a wide smile greets them.
The stall worker, aged 27, introduces himself to FMT as Alsimal. He quickly gets along with the group and persuades them to have dinner at his stall.
The fact that Alsimal, who prefers to be addressed as Tut, can speak Mandarin helps him to readily engage the group in conversation.
The tourists then seat themselves at one of the five long rows of dining tables under the tent of stall number 5.
His job accomplished, Tut returns to his post to target another group of hungry diners passing by the stall.
“Mandarin is not the only foreign language I know.
“I also speak Korean, a bit of Japanese, English, Tagalog, some German and Spanish, of course, Sabah’s Malay,” he says proudly.
Alsimal, like many who work at the open-air restaurant, is a holder of the refugee card, IMM13, issued to Filipino refugees and their families.
IMM13 holders are allowed to work legally in Sabah, although they are not allowed to work as professionals.
Like many IMM13 cardholders, Alsimal has never stepped into a classroom in his entire life. But that didn’t stop him from educating himself through all kinds of sources.
He taught himself to read, write and count while he was younger, believing that he could always get better jobs if he had skills which set him apart from others.
Since his job requires him to communicate with people of different nationalities, he realised the ability to speak even a little of foreign languages would give him an edge over his colleagues.
“So, I decided to learn as many languages as possible, particularly business languages such as Mandarin and English.
“I learned from friends and mostly from native speakers like the tourists,” he said pointing to the Chinese group savouring the seafood spread served to them.
In fact, Alsimal says almost half of the stall workers at these restaurants can speak at least one foreign language, the most common being Mandarin.
“Of course, we learn words we need for our business. For example, the kind of recipes, the prices, the names of fish, how to haggle, how to compliment people.”
Alsimal credits one particular friend for inspiring them all. This person, who passed away recently, used to dazzle others with his mastery of languages.
“He was a legend. He could speak so many languages fluently, and not just for business but also for social interaction. He spoke Mandarin, French, Arabic, German, Korean, Japanese, English … many others.
“He was the one who taught most of us. He also advised us to speak to native speakers to improve further.”
Trying to emulate his mentor, Alsimal continues to hone his language skills by speaking to as many tourists of different nationalities as possible.
Alsimal said all tourists and expats were more than happy to teach him new words and correct his pronunciation.
At the moment, he is intent on improving his Japanese.
“I know a few words and can put together some basic sentences. I know the names of these fish in Japanese, for example,” he said, referring to an assortment of fresh fish on display at the stall.
His friend Faizal, 25, also knows a bit of Mandarin, but admits he is not as good as Alsimal.
“We are IMM13 holders. We are not citizens. There are no prospects for us to become managers in the private sector.
“But in this business, there is no salary limit. If we are good, other employers are more than happy to ‘steal’ us away.
“The ability to speak multiple languages is a very valuable asset. Employers will break their banks to hire those who can speak fluently and who have a pleasing personality.”
Faizal shakes his head and expresses shock at the many university graduates who cannot speak English, let alone other foreign languages.
“The fact that so many of us can speak foreign languages, even though we did not go to school, shows it does not require talent but just hard work.
“Maybe, these university students are not working hard enough?”