10 February 2012

Multilingualism, Manglish and me

Selamat pagi. 早安 (zǎo ān).  安早 (on zo). 早安 (hoh tsa kih). Silamat burupagi.

That's how to say good morning in five of the six languages spoken where I work: Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin Chinese, Hakka Chinese, Hokkien Chinese and Bidayuh. The sixth language, of course, is the one I'm using now.

Although I know a handful of words and phrases in both BM and Mandarin I have no functional competence in any of these five languages, and this fascinating article I came across yesterday made me wonder how guilty I should be feeling about that. In Switzerland, a government Minister has recently spoken out about expats living in a 'parallel society' to the Swiss and suggested that learning a local language is the most important factor in integration. Whilst it's hard to disagree with her general point, the comments of some foreign workers there struck a chord:

Multilingual sign in Singapore (English, Chinese, BM, Tamil)
"Because of the multiple languages, Switzerland has got to be one of the hardest countries for a busy foreigner to integrate into."

"Some of us are only here for the short round...and it's difficult to become fluent in that time."

"Most of the time the expatriate employee does not need the local language."

Certainly the first point holds true here in Sarawak and what's more, your choice of language can be politically loaded. Mandarin is the prestige language and lingua franca of the Chinese community. BM is the lingua franca of the state as a whole although the Malays are a minority, and many Dayaks (indigenous people, including the Bidayuh) prefer to use English, also a prestige language, in situations where they cannot use their mother tongue. In addition, many local languages such as Bidayuh are not really languages at all but a collection of unwritten, mutually unintelligible dialects. All in all, less than straightforward.

The second comment could sound like something of a watery excuse, I think, given that most foreign workers stay for at least a year and usually more - enough time to acquire functional competence. But if the issue is intregation through language then functional competence is not enough - to interact with local people in a way that moves beyond, 'Is it vegetarian?' takes time, patience and consistent exposure to the target language which tends to happen less easily in multilingual societies.

And in Kuching, the Sarawakian capital city where I live, the third point is the truest. Attempts to use local languages are often met with (not unkind) laughter and an answer in English. There are many cafes, bars and shopping centres where English is used almost exclusively, certainly in written material such as menus, even though they are neither run nor exclusively patronised by native speakers of the language.

Should I make a more solid effort to learn Bahasa Malaysia? I don't know. I work in schools where it's nobody's first choice of language, and the times I've needed it in the past year have totalled precisely one. On the other hand, the smattering of Sinhala I acquired in multilingual Sri Lanka was supremely helpful if not exactly essential, and living in a country and not learning a local language seems like a wasted opportunity to get further under the skin of that culture. In the meantime, as something of a compromise, I am daily improving my Manglish (as Malaysian English is affectionately and not inappropriately known). Aiya, why you play-play lah, cannot learn like this :)

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