Saving ‘endangered’ languages in Malaysia

  • AseanPlus News
  • Sunday, 11 Jun 2017

Good effort: Malaysia’s first Penang Hokkien movie, ‘You Mean The World To Me’, garnered rave reviews for its gritty story of family ties as well as its use of a minority language.

THEIR feet nimbly tapping out a whirl of steps, the children twirled and swirled to the lively music of the Portuguese Eurasian community.

The dance troupe is part of efforts by the country’s Portuguese community, whose ancestors settled in Melaka in the 16th century, to preserve its eroding culture.

The loss is keenly felt, particularly in the decreasing use of their native tongue – Melaka Portuguese or Cristang, a Creole language.

With a population of around 1,000, the Melaka Portuguese Settlement – where the young dancers are from – has the highest concentration of Cristang speakers, but many of those below 45 are not fluent.

Cristang is not alone in its plight. Minority languages are rapidly being replaced by English, Malay and Mandarin – the dominant tongues taught in Malaysia’s schools.

Dr Stefanie Pillai, dean of the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics at Universiti Malaya, says some languages are spoken by fewer than 50 people.

Of the 136 languages in use in Malaysia, some 80% are considered endangered, according to the Ethnologue Report, a database of the world’s 7,000-plus languages.

An “endangered” language is one where the speakers are mainly elderly people, says Dr Pillai.

The decline has triggered efforts at preservation, at least among the larger ethnic groups. Many Malaysians, like those from the Portuguese Settlement, are trying to save the languages of their ancestry for fear of losing their unique identities and heritage.

Dr Pillai, whose mother is Portuguese-Eurasian, recently worked with the community to publish a book called Beng Prende Portugues Malaka (Come let’s learn Melaka Portuguese) as an aid for teaching the language more systematically.

Having their own language enables minority communities to feel they have a place in their country, she notes, “We are all Malaysians, but a sense of identity is very important. Sometimes, in Malaysia, assertion of an ethnic identity is made out to be a bad thing, but it’s not.”

As a community leader striving to preserve his language, Ricky Ganang, 66, strongly agrees about the relationship between language and identity in a community.

He is from the Lun Dayeh, a minority ethnic group in north-eastern Sabah whose population stands at around 9,000; there are 20,000 more if the related Lun Bawang group in Sarawak is included.

He says that even though Lun Dayeh and its variants in Sarawak are still widely spoken, younger people increasingly speak Malay at home, because of mixed marriages and school, “And once they lose the chance to learn the language as a child, it is lost forever.”

Worried his culture would vanish, Ricky has recorded the stories and songs of his people since he was 17. Now retired, he has turned his notes into books about his community’s folk tales and oral traditions, as “to preserve it, we have to write it down,” he says.

In 2015, together with two American academics, he produced a Lun Dayeh-English dictionary that was snapped up by parents keen to teach the language to their children. He is now working on a Lun Dayeh-Malay version as Malay is more widely spoken in Sabah than English.

He believes more people are now aware of the loss, hence the demand for the Lun Dayeh dictionary. Kindergartens are starting to teach the language too.

In Penang, the dominant Chinese community worries about the erosion of Penang Hokkien, which speakers say differs in intonation and vocabulary from the Hokkien spoken in southern Malaysia and Singapore.

The language is still widely used in Penang but mainly among the elderly in the community.

Tan Siew Imm, a former university English lecturer and a third-generation Penang Hokkien says she has noticed many Chinese Malaysian students using Mandarin instead of their mother tongue.

Tan wrote a Penang Hokkien dictionary last year in hopes that a written form of her language would help keep it alive. Some 700 copies have been sold.

Other Penangites are using popular culture to revitalise the language.

In May, Malaysia’s first Penang Hokkien movie, You Mean The World To Me, garnered rave reviews for its gritty story of family ties as well as its use of a minority language.

Director Saw Teong Hin told Star2 in April that the choice of language is vital as the story is set in Penang, where the people speak Penang Hokkien.

John Ong, a United States-based graphics designer born in Penang who runs a popular weekly podcast in Penang Hokkien, feels pop culture is key to making the language “cool”.

“When I was growing up there in the 80s and 90s, we were not allowed to speak Hokkien in school. It was seen as a language that the uneducated would use,” he says.

He started his Penang Hokkien podcast in 2005 after he uploaded his light-hearted conversations with a former schoolmate. To his surprise, within a year, hundreds of people were listening in.

It was then that he decided he could do more, and began recording regular podcasts with Hokkien speakers. Ong now has over 600 podcasts at and 3,000 to 4,000 regular listeners.

Despite these efforts, he feels Penang Hokkien is still fading as the young barely speak it. If it disappears, a part of Penang will disappear along with it, he says, “That’s a scary and sad thought.”

While cultural identity is valuable in itself, it also has economic value. Dr Pillai notes that tourism is often about experiencing different cultural identities, so keeping languages alive can have economic benefits.

But economic benefits aside, language diversity is something that many Malaysians want to preserve.

“It would be a dull world with only one language,” says Tan, who has become a staunch defender of the need to preserve Penang Hokkien. — The Straits Times / Asia News Network

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