WHEN she first started primary school, Suri used to cry every day.
“It was difficult for me to understand the teacher, especially if she was taking fast, ” says 22-year-old Semai, who is now herself a teacher at her kampung in Perak.
Shares Suri, luckily the teacher became aware of the language difficulties faced by the Orang Asli children and adapted her lessons to help them.
The language barrier is a frequent challenge experienced by Orang Asli children in Peninsular Malaysia, says the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) as it observed the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on Friday.
“The language that they are raised with differs from that which is taught in school. This directly impacts their ability to participate in the education system and to excel in their studies.
Understandably, this constrains the ability of Orang Asli to live life to their full trajectories due to this educational limitation, ” the commission notes in a statement.
Although indigenous people make up less than 5% of the world’s population, they account for 15% of the poorest, mainly due to limited access to education.
Hence, 2019 has been chosen as the International Year of Indigenous Languages by the United Nations.
There are an estimated 7, 000 languages spoken by 370 million indigenous people in the world, living across 90 countries and representing 5, 000 different cultures.
Unfortunately, the large majority of the languages spoken by indigenous peoples are in danger – it is estimated that every two weeks, an indigenous language disappears.
This places the respective indigenous cultures and knowledge systems at risk.
That is why, on this International Day, the goal is to draw attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote them at both national and international levels.
Article 13 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) states that Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalise, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.
Of the 137 living languages spoken in Malaysia, more than 100 constitute indigenous languages, or Orang Asli/Asal languages, each associated with unique cultures and traditions.
Says Suhakam, the preservation of these languages rely on their continued use and transmission from generation to generation, which in turn is determined by the preservation of indigenous communities and their culture.
Although Orang Asal languages in Sabah and Sarawak continue to thrive, some of them, particularly those spoken by smaller indigenous groups, and those spoken by some 100, 000 Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia are in danger of extinction.
Language plays a crucial role in the daily lives of all people and is pivotal in the areas of human rights protection, peace building and sustainable development, through ensuring cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue.
Orang Asli/Asal languages in particular are significant as they are a cornerstone of indigenous identity and are involved in a wide range of other indigenous issues, notably education, scientific and technological development, biosphere and the environment, freedom of expression, employment and social inclusion, Suhakam points out.
Unesco promotes mother tongue-based bilingual or multilingual approaches in education, which is an important factor for inclusion and quality in education.
Research shows this has a positive impact on learning and learning outcomes.
In the past two decades, there has been some efforts to recognise various indigenous languages in a formal and educational capacity, such as the recognition of the Iban language as a school subject in Sarawak in the early 1990s and the reintroduction of the Kadazan-dusun language in schools in Sabah in 1997.
On the peninsula, the Semai language teaching programme was implemented in 1998 in Semai schools. This programme was made possible through the efforts of the Semai Orang Asli community who engaged with relevant government authorities, particularly the Curriculum Development Division of the Education Ministry.
Suhakam says it supports these efforts and hopes that this formal education recognition can be extended to other indigenous communities in Malaysia.
The commission also pledges to continue to organise various programmes to uphold the rights of indigenous peoples in Malaysia, and to particularly bridge the income gap and provide an enabling environment towards ensuring equal access to quality education for indigenous children, which is also instrumental in the empowerment of indigenous communities.