Malaysia’s multilingualism is our strength — Wong Shu Qi

FEBRUARY 15 — Here in Malaysia, we always refer to Mandarin and Tamil as vernacular languages even as we categorise SJKC and SJKT as vernacular schools. Yet, do we actually know why they are called vernacular? What is vernacular anyway?

The sociolinguist Max Weinreich once said, “A language is a dialect with an army and navy”.

Similarly, national language, according to the great Benedict Anderson, is first of all, dialect equipped with printing press.

The idea of the vernacular language or dialect, i.e. language used by the local populace, was first used when the Latin Bible was translated into local languages such as English and German. Eventually, the contestation between Latin, the language of the Church, and the vernacular tongues developed into the struggle of nationalism. As vernacular languages of Europe won, the Bible and other books were printed in them. In due time, the most widely printed languages became national languages.

In this context, the printing press not only increased literacy but also helped shape what Anderson called, an imagined community.

Nationalism created nation states, “an army and navy”, and assumed that a person masters only one language. As the Indonesian independent movement took form in the 1920s, the Sumpah Pemuda was drafted.

In the pledge, it was clearly spelt out that Indonesia would be “satu tanah air”, “satu bangsa”, and “satu bahasa” (one country, one people, one language). Yet the fact is, Indonesians never spoke one single language. From Sumatra to Sulawesi, different dialects were spoken till today, on top of Dutch, the colonial language and perhaps now even English, Mandarin and many other languages.

Across the Melaka Straits, there were at least 84 languages being spoken on the streets of 18th century Melaka. Being the entrepôt, Melaka was naturally cosmopolitan and received other cultures, and therefore languages, with ease and confidence. In fact, many of them were able to master more than one language.

As a result, Malaysians today inherited this ancient diversity in our society. Most of us are still able to communicate in multiple languages. Think about the times when we bring proud Malaysians cheered for our national athletes regardless of what language we were using. The beauty of Malaysia is the multicultural elements that have been woven deeply into our social fabric.

The Sumpah Pemuda which assumed that one man can only master one language might be partly right a century ago. At that time, to travel from one island to another island in Nusantara was still difficult and communication was hence restricted by the physical distance. Today, we can travel the whole world virtually in a blink of an eye just by the movements of our fingers and have a tele-conference with anyone anywhere. We discovered that not only Malaysians who are multilingual, many people from Europe, especially in smaller countries, can usually speak three or four languages. 

We, Malaysians are gifted because our country is located geographically in the midst of three civilizations, namely, the civilisations in East Asia, South Asia and the Nusantara.

The three main languages being spoken in Malaysia are also widely used in the world today. There are 300 million Malay speakers, 1.4 billion Mandarin speakers and 66 million Tamil speakers in the world.

Just imagine, if every Malaysian can speak at least one or two of these languages, plus the English, we will be increasing our leveraging power in the international community. Malaysians should be the best interpreters or translators of the world.

In conclusion, I want to make three points.

First, all languages are similarly valuable; our Bahasa Melayu is important but the language of the Penan in Sarawak is no less valuable.

Second, we can definitely command more than one language, and we must not fall back to the outdated nationalistic mindset of a century ago.

Third, being multilingual is a gift, strength for Malaysia, we must take advantage of this to make Malaysia a colourful and successful nation. We must not turn this advantage into a disadvantage.

* Wong Shu Qi is MP for Kluang.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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