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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Would English Make You LESS a Malay?

Phew! I just got back from my class and as usual, the students always leave me with interesting issues to ponder. But in comparison to my previous lessons, today's session is somewhat different. The moment I entered the class I could already sniff the different mood. Normally, I would be the one waiting for them but today, there they were...waiting for me. So I started the class by telling them about the conference I attended at Damai Laut. But what I least expected was for them to raise a very mind-boggling issue. This is not just ANY issue. This one is pertaining to learning English.

At first, a student, petite yet confident, shared his personal concern about the trend in the current Malaysian society. He observed a social stigma among some Malaysians that inclines to associate English to the language of the colonisers, therefore refusing to speak or learn English. He notified that there are people who abhor English-speaking-Malays and regard them as a bunch of people who has abandoned their roots. Just before he finished his comment, another student, in a more serious tone, pointed out the tendency among Malaysians to embrace English as a language bearing strings of prestige to the extent of forsaking the mother-tongue, Bahasa Melayu. He displayed his discomfort by saying that, "some people are ashamed to be speaking Bahasa Melayu while some believe that if you speak English, you will have a bright future and if you don't, you are doomed to fail". The same student reiterated that Japan doesn't need English to prosper and India, despite an English speaking nation, is still under-developed. Wow! I thought to myself, the students do have very interesting views to share. And they are using English to express them! Mind you, it has always been a challenge to get them to even OPEN their mouth, what more to get them to express their opinions and using ENGLISH!

I was intrigued and wanted to prolong the discussion so I asked them the question, "would speaking English make you LESS a Malay?" Their answers greatly revealed the students' perception towards learning English. What is more shocking is that, there are among them who are against the use English. It is interesting to know that there are others who are on the same boat, and that the students' point of view is not something new to me. When I was a fledgling student (a VERY long time ago), there were groups of radical students who had nothing better to do but to go around the campus chanting: "English is the language of the Satans...Don't speak English!" I don't want to be pointing fingers at anyone. They may have their own justification for doing so. Instead, I tried to rationalize the matter. Could it be that some people fail to disassociate a language with the nation who speaks it? The fact that we were once colonised by the English doesn't ameliorate the matter. But so what? Why do we need to argue about this? Would it cause us any harm? Would we be loosing anything. We have obtained our independence and we have acquired a second language. Does it mean that we are still colonised if we speak or use English?

So, I gave the students some points to ponder and asked:

"What is WRONG with English that some people taint it with such a negative image?"

"Isn't English, like any other languages, another means people use to transmit their messages?"

"Isn't it a waste if we cannot share our beautiful culture and heritage with the rest of the world simply because we do not know English?" (Imagine a book on Malay cultural heritage written in Bahasa Melayu with beautiful pictures of "songket" and "wayang kulit". I'm sure colourful pictures are lovely to look at but for a foreign reader, it will enhance their appreciation if you can accompany the pictures with some explanations in a language that they can comprehend, won't you agree?)


"Isn't it always better to master another language so that you can enjoy greater freedom to knowledge?"

The provocative questions heated our discussion. The students seemed interested to continue so I gave my personal view. I explained to them that there is no doubt that there are very successful individuals who have zero knowledge of English. There are also some nations privileged with strong and independent mentality that they may not need English to proliferate economically. But still, is it WRONG to learn English? I explained that critics are well aware of this issue. I shared how a postcolonial critic, for example, would approach Danial Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe" and Shakespeare's "The Tempest" from a different angle. I pointed out how postcolonial critics try to tackle this issue and bring to the centre the "marginalized literatures". I also talked about how we can expand our horizon of creativity by mastering a second language. I talked about hybridity in language and asked them to picture what a "kampung boy" looks like and how is the picture different to a "village boy"? I reminded them that Bahasa Melayu has never been any inferior to English and explained that there are people in Amsterdam who speak Malay and study in great depth, the Malay Hikayats.

Time flies when you are having fun. By the time we realised, it was time for me to dismiss the class. Though there is still a lot to be said, we managed to agree that the "English issue" is the matter of the mind. We have to stay positive and feed our minds with sound reasoning. Sensing that some students were still eager to share their thoughts, I had to satisfy my curiosity as well as theirs. So I asked them to prepare a short note or a paragraph that will express their attitude towards English after having THE discussion. I can't wait to check them out. Till then, if you have nothing interesting to do...try asking yourself this question- would learning English (or any other languages) make you less the person you are?

1 comment:

Wenda said...

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