Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Few days back I read this really interesting column in The Malaysian Insider on a language-divided Malaysia. Have a read, it highlighted some very interesting points that I believe are quite accurate.

In it, the author wrote about how he has different groups of friends that he speaks different languages with- English, and Malay.
Chances are that, like me, you also have different categories of friends based on what language(s) they are comfortable with. Maybe in addition to English and Malay you have friends who shy away from both languages, preferring Mandarin or any other dialect. 
I found that premise very interesting given my own upbringing and experiences. For one thing, I quite agree that I have different groups of friends with whom I speak different languages. Or rather, I speak different languages when I am with different friends.

How cool is that!
The author went on to propose the possibility that one day, what if Malaysia becomes even more divided- not just by culture, religion or ethnicity, but by language as well?
“By my son’s generation in few more decades, I see Malaysia as being divided not by race but by language,” he concludes. “Those who speak English and those who don’t.”
I think this is quite an understatement considering how many languages are spoken in our country, but I do think that language is definitely one of the barriers that prevent us from being united as citizens. But going back to myself, I can definitely say that I speak from experience when I say language divides us.

I grew up speaking English- that was the first language taught to me, and it was the first language I learned to speak. It has been the language I am most comfortable communicating in (though when I was younger I was quite bilingual), and so I've always maintained that English is my first language. I do enjoy listening to stories from my mother about how my sister would have to be the de facto translator while our parents were at work when my grandparents were looking after us- I spoke next to no Cantonese and they didn't know English.

But being in a Chinese primary school, I also learned to converse in Mandarin. And from my parents' families, Cantonese and Hokkien. Yet, I was still always more comfortable in English- with friends in school I do remember that even though I was conversing in Mandarin most of the time, I still had several friends that I spoke to completely in English.

Tried using this site to zombify myself- pretty cool, no?
Then I entered high school, and I think this is where the main language barrier comes in. I think that we were quite segregated according to our language because of school policies- I was placed in a class with all the other students from Chinese primary schools. But then I also mixed with other groups- the ones who came from the national schools. Then I stopped taking Chinese classes and I think the separation started to widen as I was sorted into a class with others who spoke predominantly English as well. And I do believe that it is this difference in language that caused a division among these groups- they just were not comfortable communicating with each other.

Even till today, there are some friends with whom I would converse completely in Mandarin with, and some completely in English with, although I admit since coming to Australia surprisingly quite a number of friends started speaking to me in English instead of Mandarin, which was a little awkward at first- there just seem to be this wire inside our heads that this is the language that we converse in and when it's different, you feel a little odd.

But at the same time, as with every other issue, I think there are more layers to this- one of them being that in Malaysia, culture is always tied to language. And I do think that, stereotypically speaking, Chinese educated people think differently than non-Chinese educated people. Take basketball for instance- it seems to be a sport filled predominantly by Chinese educated people. But soccer, on the other hand, is the opposite. I believe that in our country, the way we are brought up affects all of that and that's how you have Chinese educated people into basketball and non-Chinese educated people into soccer. It's just as if you're brainwashed into liking basketball upon entering a Chinese school (along with other brainwashes I might add).

So do I think that one day we will be divided by our language? I think we already are.
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  1. EeLyn says:

    Nice. So where do I stand? A friend who you speak to completely in Mandarin? But we 'speak' in English online. And I don't think I'm the Chinese-educated person who is separated from the non-Chinese background ones. I mix around, don't I? haha

    I've honestly been wondering if I should be speaking English to you the next time I see you in person, though. Seems to me I should be doing that, but like you said, it's weird. Although I've always seen you as an English person, you're a person whom I've spoken to completely in Chinese since we knew each other.

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