Malaysia is a melting pot for languages in Asia.
More than a dozen local languages and dialects are widely spoken among locals.
50 something Judy Ng from Petaling Jaya is a mother of three. She teaches Hokkien to her children, but only two of them understand the language since they were exposed to it through their grandparents.
But this doesn’t apply to her daughter.
“My youngest daughter can’t speak and can’t understand very well,” she says.
She adds that most of the early Chinese migrants to Malaysia don’t understand Mandarin because they speak mainly dialects, Hokkien or Cantonese. “Maybe our next generation they may be lesser and lesser people able to speak dialect I guess”.
The United Nations estimates that more than half of the existing languages in the world will be extinct by 2100.
Despite having more than a dozen local languages and dialects, Malaysia virtually has no government agencies dedicated to preserve non-Malay languages.
Dr Patricia Nora Riget heads the Asian-European Languages Department at the University Malaya.
She explains the importance of using one’s mother tongue for early childhood learning.
“Language is linked to culture. Through language, knowledge can be learned about culture, about the way people live. Children for example, if they go to school, it is easier for them to learn concepts if they use their own language.
Dr Patricia is Bidayu, an ethnic group found mostly in the Borneo state of Sarawak.
The population of Bidayus number only around 200,000.
“More and more young Bidayus don’t use Bidayu at home anymore. With friends they use English or Bahasa Melayu Sarawak. I think it is difficult for me to say that Bidayu is under threat. But if we don’t do anything about it, it will... with now all the villagers have access to the internet and television.”
Since the 1970s, the government decided that Malay should replace English as the medium of instruction in schools and government departments.
Jiwi Kathaiah is a Tamil language news editor.
“It is the policy of the ruling party to only have one language, one stream, that is Bahasa Malay. The Mandarin and Tamil must go. So the education system today is geared towards it. If they successfully implement it, Tamil schools and Chinese schools will disappear.”
There are about 2.5mil Malaysian Indians and most speak Tamil.
Jiwi says the government must acknowledge local languages in the country.
“The idea of one nation, one language is over,” he says.
“The unifying factor is the national language. We all know we must excel in Bahasa. At the same time you excel in your Mandarin, in your Tamil, any other language. In Singapore Bahasa is the national language. English is the official language, Mandarin is the official language, Tamil is the official language. Where is the difficulty? We never had a problem but this problem is created by the ruling party politicians.”
Last year, the government stopped using English in state schools to teach maths and science.
The Education Ministry explained the switch was to help students learn better, however, many parents felt that was a political move rather than an educational one.
The Orang Aslis are a group of people considered to be the earliest inhabitants of Peninsular Malaysia.
But according to rights activist Raman Bahtuin, they too are struggling to preserve their language.
“Even in my generation, many children have switched to Malay or English. When they move to the cities they mix with other languages. You mix them together it disappears. I totally agree that if a language is not used, it will disappear in less than two generations.”
Although interest in Orang Asli rights have been gaining momentum in recent years, many are still systimacally assimiliated into the greater Malay culture.
According to Dr Patricia, it’s important to excel in both languages.
“In this globalised world, English is put at the top. Everybody has to use English but it does not mean that we have to put aside our mother tongue. The most important thing is to ensure that children are bilingual, to have their mother tongue and also English. I think it can be done.”
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