catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Multilingualism in Malaysia

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The memory is an amazing thing. I left Malaysia more than 15 years ago and haven’t had a proper conversation with anyone in any language other than English since (even back in Malaysia my parents spoke to me in a mixture of English and Hokkien anyway and since coming to Australia have spoken to me and my sister only in English since my sister, being 7 when we left, can’t understand a word of Hokkien anyway). However, in my recent holiday in Malaysia I found that I could still follow 80-90 per cent of those conversations between my father and some relatives which were exclusively in Hokkien and maybe 50-60% of those conversations which were exclusively in Hakka (these are just two of the many Chinese dialects spoken in Malaysia – my father’s side is Hakka speaking and my mother’s is Hokkien but all of my father’s family speaks Hokkien too).

There is a natural asymmetry between my still being able to understand conversations in these dialects as opposed to speaking proper sentences in these dialects – I can only manage some cursory sentences when it comes to the latter, sufficient for ordering food. My understanding of Bahasa Malaysia is still pretty good too, and my postmodern experience of the year must have been I was following a Mandarin period drama on Malaysian TV by reading the Malay subtitles of which I could understand roughly 90 per cent.

So in order of ‘understanding’ fluency from most to least, my English is still tops, Malay a far but not too far second, Hokkien a far but not too far third, Hakka a rather more distant fourth and Cantonese fifth (since I have no family links to this dialect anyway, aside from attending high school in Ipoh which has a lot of Cantonese speakers).

Most interesting is the way most people in my family and in Malaysia generally can interchange between 2 or more languages in the same sentence.

Almost all of my family in Malaysia is English educated as my family heritage is Straits Chinese, also known as Peranakan and so none of my late grandparents, nor my uncles and aunties and very few of my cousins can speak Mandarin or are literate in Chinese unless they have taken special classes in it. But in conversation Hokkien gets mixed with English perhaps 60/40 (60 per cent English). My half-Malay cousin converses with his Chinese mother (my aunty) in Malay mixed with English mixed with Hokkien all in the course of one sentence. In addition, there has been some hybridisation between Hokkien and Malay – the most common example is the term ‘kopi-o’ for black coffee, kopi being originally the Malay word for coffee (or was it in fact originally a Hokkien word? I’m not sure) but is now also a Hokkien word, and ‘0’ (pronounced ‘awe’) a Hokkien word for black, but go to any ‘kopi tiam’ (coffee shop) in Malaysia and ask for ‘kopi o’ and the proprietor, regardless of ethnicity, will know what you want. I think all this puts to the lie to the faddish notion that teaching a child more than one language when growing up will cripple his or her abilities to manage well in any. Incidentally the term ‘kopi tiam’ is yet another example, ‘tiam’ being originally the Hokkien word for shop but kopi tiam now being a commonly understood Malaysian term for coffee shop.

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Written by Admin

January 22, 2006 at 5:42 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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