Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Language House

"Actually, we shouldn't tease her so much," I told my friend.

We were laughing about our friend's Malay, which, given that she's not a Malay herself, sounds quite funny. "I bet that's probably how our Korean sounds like to the Koreans."

"True," I said, "but in a way, she's been born and bred in Malaysia for so many years. I would think that someone who had that background would have been more receptive and more able to speak Malay properly."

Perhaps 'proper' needs to be further defined here. Proper being 'able to speak and say things correctly'. Of course, not everyone will be able to speak perfect Malay (or perfect Korean, for that matter), because the idea of perfection, in this case, varies from on to the other. A case could also be made for the standard of competence, but in this case...not sounding funny would seem to be a reasonable criteria.

"Perhaps she only ever hang out with the Chinese back home," a friend motioned. It was a good point, I pondered. "But if that is the case, why do people do that?" I asked.

"Well, the education system doesn't look as kindly upon non-Malays and their language and culture."

"No, the culture I get," I tried to make myself clear. "There are plenty that's wrong there. But the language, I mean. How come Malay is not well-known or well-spoken by someone who has spent the first twenty-odd years in Malaysia?"

It was a question that I had posed at the time, and a part of me couldn't remember what the response was. Nevertheless, I think it is a question that's somehow stuck with me for a bit.

I mean, a person born and bred in France (though not necessarily French) would be expected to be able to speak French rather well. The same goes for Korea. Truth is, language can be picked up easier than one thinks, and you don't need to spend a decade in order to speak good French or Korean.

Nevertheless, I digress a bit. The point I'm trying to pose here is why many non-Malays (and by non-Malays I mean the Indians and the Chinese, mainly) can't speak Malay well, despite having an optimum situation to do so.

Perhaps a part of the answer lies in our power of English: it's quite good, and it would serve as the escape valve should one can't express oneself in one's mother tongue. The situation is not the same in Korea, where I would roughly estimate that four out of five Koreans can't speak it well, because every single thing here is done in Korean (so there is no need to flex the English muscle).

It's different in Malaysia, though, where English definitely ranks amongst the top two of someone's preferred mode of communication (and in many cases, the undisputed number 1). Perhaps that is a legacy of our colonial history...in which case we should also probably be able to speak passable Portuguese, Dutch and Japanese as well, given the colonial whore that we used to be. Strains of their culture, however, remain.

Perhaps the bigger part of the answer to the bigger question lies here. Not learning or speaking Malay well may well be a reaction to unfriendly non-Malay policies (or perhaps more accurately, policies that are too friendly to the Malays). Perhaps it is a form of reliation to the lack of support to Indian and Chinese schools. Maybe the sense of patriotism and belonging to Malaysia is just not quite there. But then again, the same could be said for minority languages and cultures in a lot of other countries. France, for example, bans the use of headscarves in official places (like schools, though people can still wear it outside). Nevertheless, a non-French born and bred in France would still probably be able to speak French really well. Not stuttering, not forgetting what the words are, not mixing up the grammar.

The same applies to Korea, who don't quite ban anything, but do have arguably the most ignorant of populace I've ever come across. Of course, this doesn't apply to every one, and it's not necessarily a negative comment. Rather, their focus is much more inward, much more unto themselves, that the world outside, the religions of others, don't matter much, if at all. As such, few take the impetus to truly understand this notion of 'the other' (and the ones who do, spends time trying to convert people to Christianity. Sigh).

However, the more I think about it, the more I reckon that the perception of language could well come into play here. By perception, I mean 'glamour'. French, with romantic notions attached to it, could make one very popular with the ladies. The same goes for Spanish, Italian, perhaps even Portuguese. German and Dutch, on the other hand, would score marks for their masculine image (it sounds rather rough to me). Knowing any of the Chinese dialects means that job in Singapore will be easier to come by.

But Malay? I don't know where Malay stand in all this. I don't know what kind of perception it has amongst people, but I do know that it doesn't quite rank along with French or Korean when it comes to glamour (despite the fact that you could survive rather well in Indonesia and parts of southern Thailand).

But then again, would a Malaysian go to Pattaya when they can go to Paris?

*Earlier part loosely based on a real-life conversation.

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