Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Speak Talk

Malaysia has about 27 million citizens in the country with the Malays making up 50.4% of the population. Being the main race and often acknowledged as the privileged ones in Malaysia, Malays are mainly the policy maker as they lead almost half of the Parliament seats ever since the emergence of independence. Thus, we have the position of the Malay language as the de facto and de jure language of the country. However, being a multilingual community, the citizens are actually mostly bilinguals or multilinguals with a **polyglossic practice of language with English Language gaining prominence in many fields. For example, let’s see the current scenario under the light of the Language Policy of Malaysia against the current Language Practice of the Malay-English bilingual speakers in the Malay community.

The Malaysian Language policy under the National Language Act 1967 indicates that Malay language is the Official and Legal language with English Language and the other ethnic languages coming in as second languages of the country. Malay language should be important as a language that facilitates ethnic integration and a multiethnic nation building tool. It also acts as a safeguard of the Malay people’s cultural practices and is said to capture the essence of being a Malay. A language policy is actually a conscious step taken to have language planning to fulfil demand of unification through language as the use of one common language playing the role of a unifying tool is common for any country that has just achieved independence and want to be known as a new unit. The Malaysian Language Policy is one of monolingual attitude where only one language is considered as official and others appear to be marginalised. Such policies would usually result in foreign language acquisition and diffusion among the speakers besides detailed corpus planning at the government level such as the development of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka as an instrument of standardising the language to achieve the sense of uniformity (as uniformity reflects unity).

Whereas the Language Practice of the Malay-English bilingual speakers would be something like this. We would use the Formal Malay Language in some official and legal domains, followed by the use of Formal English Language in knowledge acquisition, sciences and technology area and economy fields. Following in is the use of Colloquial Malaysian English (widely known as Manglish) and in the last place would be some Bazaar Malay Language (Bahasa Melayu Pasar), which are both used for communication and interaction purposes in the community. Please note that this is ranked on the scale of linear polyglossic distribution and is true for many bilingual speakers as until today. Yet, the boundaries of this distribution is not to be always compartmentalised as such because of the emergence of the English Language as the future universal utilitarian language. A few years ago, Manglish and, to a certain extent, even the Formal English Language would be used less than the Bazaar Malay Language. The realisation of modernity has definitely impacted on the importance of English Language as the Globalisation language and extended the use of English into more domains than imaginable about twenty years ago. The worrying thing is that these changes are undergone without much awareness and recognition among the Malay community despite the many alarming transformations.

It is crucial for us to observe the further change of the Malaysian community and ask a few fundamental questions in relation to the issue. Is the essential part of the Malaysian Constitution which defines a Malay as someone speaks the Malay Language still be relevant in the current scenario where we evidently have some who could not function in a basic situation with it? Would Krauss’ (1992) prediction that in 100 years from now, almost 50-90% of the world languages will be dead is becoming a reality??? Is it possible then for a majority language to disappear despite the quite evidently strong language policy??? What happens when representatives of the government themselves seem to contradict the Malaysian Language Policy and defies what it says? In the context of the defined community of Malay-English bilingual speakers, would they be encouraged to maintain their mother tongue to stay united or would they be more inclined towards further obtaining a new language as a reaction towards modernity??

These are questions that should be addressed by the responsible government administrative bodies as well as the Malay community as a whole. English is now being used in schools, financial sector and in things that seem to matter the most if we are to become a more developed nation. In many ways, it is also replacing the Malay language as a lingua franca for the multiethnic community which might reflect the failure of the Malay language in doing its main job. If the use of English Language continues to thrive in many domains after this (realised in the proposal of some politicians who have requested in 2002 to have the English Language used in Parliament- *note that it was declined after an ongoing feud between a few concerned parties*), it would not be impossible that one day, even the Malaysian Language Policy will have to be “unofficially” amended to meet the pre-requisite of being a modern nation. Loosely captured, that pre-requisite would be to blend with Globalisation and lose part of our identity to it. Please ask yourself now; is it worthwhile to become insignificant again after 50 years of independence? I doubt you would say YES with high enthusiasm :p

(if the topic interests you, I would recommend Language Policy and Modernity in Southeast Asia [2006] by Antonio L Rappa and Lionel Wee for further readings)

**polyglossic:having more than two language varities existing side by side in a geographical area (Fishman, 1972). They are used for different specific purposes although they can sometime overlap.