First published on Nov 27, 2012:
IS Malaysian English sub-standard, or, in some way, non-standard?
Yet, in countries as different as India and Jamaica, the respective terms Standard Indian English and Standard Jamaican English are fully recognized. Like India and Jamaica, Malaysia is also home to indigenised versions of English, but many other Malaysians would not consider it to be up to “standard”.
What is Standard English anyway? Queen’s English? Hardly! Almost nobody, other than the Queen herself, speaks like the Queen, if one is referring to accent. I am from Scotland, where, as everyone knows, the best English is spoken (ahem!) but
I am sometimes seriously challenged when seeking to communicate with my fellow Britons in other regions of the UK. Please don’t think of British English as being of one variety; there are many. Which is “standard”? The main differences here are in pronunciation; accent rather than vocabulary, but, even at this level, differences are great.
Sociolinguistics has three terms: Acrolect (high language), Mesolect (middle language) and Basilect (low language). Let’s look at Malaysian English. At one end, there is Acrolect and at the other Basilect, with Mesolect somewhere in between. This might be seen as a continuum from “slightly Malaysian” to “very Malaysian”.
I prefer to see each as distinct, with its respective role. That is, Acrolect, Mesolect and Basilect forms of Malaysian English are functionally separate and distinct.
Fake American accents
How do we recognize Acrolect? This variety is internationally comprehensible, the main distinguishing feature being (a more “native” or “Western” form of) pronunciation.
Yet it is pathetic to hear Malaysians faking an accent (in the case of radio DJs, it is almost invariably a phony caricature of an American accent, with listeners frequently being addressed as “y’all”) because they erroneously believe that is more acceptable than sounding “local”.
But there’s nothing “wrong” at all when Acrolect speakers sound Malaysian; they can express themselves articulately with proper grammar and can even confidently present a paper at an international conference, despite not having an American accent.
In addition, they walk on the five-foot-way because that means something different from pavement or sidewalk. They code-switch to pay at the pondok, play football on the padang and tah pau from the stalls, but they also know when they should say kiosk, playing field and take-away. Many Acrolect speakers have English as their primary means of communication.
Mesolect speakers use a form of English which displays particular features. There is some grammatical reduction, which is occasioned more by mother tongue influence than by lack of awareness.
Complexities of tense are dispensed with, thus: He arrive(d) already. Redundancy of prepositions is rife, thus: Can you repeat again?
Mesolect is freely used by people in their offices, at meetings, on the phone, but should not be used in formal documents in business presentations or in international correspondence.
And then we come to Basilect, which is REAL Malaysian English! On my first visit to Malaysia, I enquired at an office whether a course of action could be followed. Several people in the office enthusiastically chorused “Can-Can! Can-Can!” For a moment, I had visions of the Moulin Rouge and high-flying skirts! It took me a moment to realise that this was an emphatic assertion of possibility!
My all-time prize-winner Basilect example is one that I always share with my participants when I conduct our Speak Like a Professional training. It goes like this: I was once seeking to purchase leather shoes in a shop in Petaling Jaya. The sales lady indicated the cheap pair: “This one cow” and the expensive pair: “This one deer”.
Emotionally, I can handle wearing a piece of bovine skin better than deer. So I told the sales lady that I couldn’t wear the deer but could wear the cow. Evidently, she did not discern much integrity in my reasoning and asked: “Deer cannot, ah? How come cow can?”
Now that is REAL Malaysian English! Don’t tell me that it is bad English! That lady communicated in a way that left me speechless with admiration! “HOW COME COW CAN?” – the alliteration and the economy of the utterance ... so Malaysian and so communicative!
Basilect is wonderful in its colour and precision. But it should be used only in the most informal of oral situations and never with an uninitiated foreigner!
To see Malaysian English in terms of good or bad, right or wrong is to miss the realities of expediency and the extensive process of assimilation and adaptation. In a society where there is little that might be termed indigenous, Malaysian English, though not home-sown, is certainly home-cultivated, indigenised, though not indigenous.
Thus, any evaluative statement about Malaysian English must be guarded from being over-simplistic. The good-bad, right-wrong, standard-deviant paradigm should give way to the appropriate-inappropriate spectrum.
Basilect is the only form of Malaysian English which may be termed pidgin due to the idiosyncratic usage of English words and the simplification and reduction of grammar, so that the syntax of Basilect has more in common with Cantonese, Hokkien or Malay than with native-speaker English.
Sometimes, as a mark of intimacy or common identity, Acrolect speakers choose to lapse into Basilect as it is more colourful and meaningful to say that someone is sombong rather than proud, kay poh rather than nosey, pandai rather than smart! And, of course, even Acrolect speakers fall into the longkang rather than the drain!
I am frequently approached by parents anxious that their children should learn “correct” English, doubtful that the present school system can deliver. They want their children to be competitive as globalisation becomes less of an option and more of a reality.
To effect this, the methodological emphasis should not be on somehow stamping out (bad/wrong) Malaysian English but recognising the place and the usefulness of Basilect and Mesolect, while extending the repertoire to include Acrolect, a standard variety which is internationally accepted and still Malaysian.
Malaysian English should not be seen as one single entity, intrinsically sub-standard, as opposed to some vaguely defined and barely attainable “Standard English”.