4 December 2023

So what if languages die?


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Boleh hempak aeh bewayat dalam bahase aeh?
Bulih hek belwal bahasa ibunda hek?
Boleh ha cerog kui rik ha?
Bulih ong cakap dalam bahase uang kitak sendiyik?
Podi papia yo sa linggu mai?

You might have guessed that the above questions ask, in five different languages, if you can speak your mother language. The languages, Jakun, Semai, Temiar, Temuan (from Hardy Zakaria bin Kassim and friends from ASYIKfm) and Melaka Portuguese, are among the 130 languages spoken in Malaysia, many of which are under threat of disappearing. This happens for many reasons. Among them is when the native languages of your grandparents or parents are not used at home to communicate with family members. We then start using another language as our first language. This might be the language spoken by the majority of the people where you live. It could also be the main language of education or one that is perceived as being more important.

For many people of Portuguese Eurasian heritage in Malaysia, especially those who live outside Melaka, English has become their first language. A similar phenomenon has been observed among some Malaysian Indians who now use English rather than an Indian language as their first language. If your mother language is not spoken anywhere else in the world, this language may eventually die out, never to be used again in actual communication, never to be heard again.

In fact, about 40% of the world’s 7,000 plus languages are classified as being endangered. Many of these languages which are under threat in Malaysia are indigenous languages such as Bateq, Kintaq, Lanoh and Penan. Just as our shrinking forests result in the loss of flora and fauna, the loss of languages shrinks the world’s cultural and linguistic diversity. Sadly, as languages disappear, local knowledge and wisdom inherent within them are also likely to disappear.

We are reminded of the importance of this diversity for the promotion of mutual respect and understanding of different cultures as we celebrate UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day (IMLD) in February. Initiated by Bangladesh and proclaimed by UNESCO’s General Conference towards the end of 1999, IMLD has been celebrated on the 21st of February every year since the year 2000. This date marks the tragic occasion when lives were lost in Dhaka during a protest calling for the recognition of Bengali as an official language.

five human hands on brown surface

In Malaysia, the Federal Constitution allows the use and teaching or learning of languages other than the national language. In fact, most Malaysians speak at least two languages. There is a multitude of languages in Malaysia, including Malay dialects, indigenous languages, and Malay and Portuguese-based creoles. However, the sad reality is that for many of these languages, the number of fluent speakers is declining. This makes it rather challenging to transfer the languages to the next generation. As the older generation passes on, opportunities to learn our mother language may well disappear with them.

This means that there need to be alternative ways to use and keep our languages alive, especially as the lack of resources and trained teachers limits the number of local languages that can be taught in schools. Thus, efforts to teach one’s mother language, such as is being done by Mestri (‘Teacher’) Sara Frederica Santa Maria from the Portuguese Settlement in Melaka, are to be lauded. When lockdowns and travel restrictions were imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sara moved her Melaka Portuguese classes online and used WhatsApp to communicate with her students. Language learning resources for Melaka Portuguese, such as a coursebook, a bilingual dictionary mobile app and an illustrated trilingual children’s book which were developed together with researchers from Universiti Malaya, proved useful for the online classes. Melaka Portuguese (also known as Papiah Cristang) has its roots in language contact between Portuguese, Malay, and other local languages, and has survived in Malaysia over the last five centuries, whilst its sister language, Tugu Portuguese in Indonesia, has died out and now only exists in songs and performances.

Language use in music is one way to encourage the use of a mother language. Hence, the role of language-specific media cannot be underestimated. Such is the case of ASYIKfm, a radio station which broadcasts in the four Orang Asli languages mentioned in the beginning of this article. Apart from entertainment, the station played a vital role during the COVID-19 pandemic to share health and safety information to Orang Asli communities.

The pandemic highlighted the dire need to use multilingual resources to quickly disseminate important health and safety announcements. Dr. Rusaslina Idrus from Universiti Malaya worked closely with Orang Asli communities, colleagues, NGOs, and other stakeholders to help share information in indigenous languages. Apart from digital posters and audio messages in indigenous languages, a short video competition was also used to encourage Orang Asli communities to get vaccinated. Almost half of the videos were produced in Orang Asli languages.

Such efforts tie in nicely with the theme of this year’s IMLD, ‘Using technology for multilingual learning: Challenges and opportunities’. The theme also invites us to reflect on the quick switch to online teaching and learning over the last two years. It is time for us to go beyond thinking of multilingual education as having different instructional languages. We need to think about our approach to multilingualism in the classroom for children coming from different language backgrounds with different levels of access to early childhood education, and exposure to technology. For example, how can we provide support for children who are confronted with a ‘new’ language when they enter formal education for the first time? How can we make use of multilingual resources in the physical and online classroom to provide more equitable and inclusive learning opportunities?

As we ponder these questions, let us celebrate our own mother languages. Wish someone ‘Happy Mother Language Day’ in your own mother languages or post this greeting on your social media. Post an interesting fact about your mother language. Listen to several Orang Asli languages at the YouTube channel of the Faculty of Languages & Linguistics, Universiti Malaya. If you are an educator, ask your students what their mother languages are and ask them to say something in it if they can.

I would like to end with a quote from a Melaka Portuguese speaker: “I don’t want our language to die so I will keep on speaking (Melaka) Portuguese until the last day, and I will pass it on to my grandchildren too because I don’t want it to die”.

Wishing you all Happy International Mother Language Day 2022! Selamat Hari Bahasa Ibunda Antarabangsa! Bong Dia Internasional di Linggu Mai!

The author is a Professor at the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics, and Centre for Malaysian Indigenous Studies, Universiti Malaya. She is also the Dean of Social Advancement and Happiness Research Cluster, UM and may be contacted at stefanie@um.edu.my