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Where Is The LAnguage??

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sharmila Valli Narayanan wonders why Indian Malaysians seem unperturbed that they cannot speak their mother tongue.

“If the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation.” – quote attributed to Lord Macaulay, 1835

A cousin of mine talked about a comment passed by her husband’s Japanese boss. She had attended a dinner with her husband for his company function where a number of people from Japan were present. Her husband speaks fluent Japanese. When the Japanese spoke to her they spoke in their passable English. They were intrigued whenever my cousin and her husband spoke to each other. Finally his boss asked them, “How come when you both speak to each other you speak in English and not in your Indian language?” The Japanese were surprised and puzzled as to why these two Indian Malaysians spoke to each other in English.

If you like me, are from the middle and upper middle class urban Indian Malaysian homes, this phenomenon of speaking to each other in English would not be out of place to us. Many of us would not be even able to speak in our mother tongue. And very few of us loose sleep over this fact. (Which is why I wondered what all the fuss and criticism was about the characters in Vaaranam Ayiram speaking in English. Tamils in Tamil Nadu are the biggest hypocrites of them all when they talk about safe guarding the Tamil language. They can’t even get actresses who speak Tamil for their movies! And have you ever seen a Tamil actor during interview who cannot open his mouth without a sentence or two of English thrown in?)

I consider myself blessed because not only do I speak my mother tongue Malayalam, I also speak Tamil fluently and am able to read in Tamil as well (although I cannot write – go figure!). In my family it was taken for granted that not only could we speak our mother tongue but we could also speak Tamil as well. I used to think it odd to meet Malayalees who could not speak Tamil. There seemed something strange about them, I thought.

That was until I went to school and met for the first time, Malayalees and Tamil Malaysians who could not speak a word of their language and were pretty proud of it as well. I have also known of Indian Malaysian mothers who fought with the school principle to get their children out of Tamil class during POL (People’s Own Language – this was a class in national schools back in the 1960s and 1970s were students could learn Tamil or Mandarin. If only the government took this POL class seriously, maybe non Malays would not be abandoning national schools in droves) and got them enrolled into Mandarin class. This was because they did not want their children to be associated with the Tamil language although they themselves were Tamil or were married to Tamil men. At the same time we were all proud of our Bengali friend Reena Nandey who enrolled in the Tamil class and could read quite well in the language by the time we left Standard 6.

Today my young nephew and nieces need subtitles to watch Tamil films because they can’t understand Tamil. I wish I could say their Malayalam is good. It isn’t. They are not able to converse in that language either. Their ‘mother tongue’ is now English. They speak to their grandma in a mixture of broken Malayalam and English and their grandma replies to them in Malay. And this scenario is not confined to my family. This scenario is played out in many urban middle class homes of Indian Malaysians. It seems to me the better educated and the richer the Indian Malaysian is, the more he or she distances herself from her mother tongue.

Many Indian Malaysians who know their mother tongue seem to be almost embarrassed to speak the language especially in the presence of other Malaysians. Even when a few of Indian Malaysians who can speak their mother tongue get together the chances are they will speak in English more often.

I do not see this among my Chinese Malaysian friends. They are very proud of their language and don’t care a fig if there are others around them who do not understand Mandarin. They will chatter away happily amongst themselves in their mother tongue. Except us Indian Malaysians who think we will pollute the sanctity of the office or other public places by talking in our mother tongue. Why is this situation prevalent among us? I spend nights thinking about it and can’t seem to arrive at a satisfactory answer.

I am not saying we should not learn English or Malay or Mandarin. I say the more language one learns the merrier! We need Malay as it is the lingua franca of our country. And of course we always need English, as it is the international language for almost everything. And let us not deny the fact that among Indian Malaysians, the mark of an educated person is his or her ability to speak fluently in the language. You can have a PhD in astrophysics but if you can’t speak English properly eyebrows will be raised and your status as an highly qualified person will be questioned.

We should celebrate the Indian Malaysian prowess in English. But at the same time we should also ask ourselves why are we not showing the same prowess when it comes to learning our mother tongue whether it is Tamil, Malayalam, Punjabi, Telugu etc? Let’s not even go into being able to read and write in our mother tongue – that’s perhaps asking too much. But at least to be able to speak in it. Why or why are Indian Malaysians especially those in the middle and upper middle class group seem to think that the wealthier and more successful they are, the more distance they have to keep between themselves and their mother tongue?

In my nephew and niece’s school in the affluent Bukit Bandaraya area in Bangsar, almost none of the Indian Malaysian students in the top classes (and the children in these classes are mainly from well to do family) can speak their mother tongue. Only the children the from the bottom classes (and they are from the low income families that live nearby) speak in their mother tongues. Many of these children did their primary education in Tamil schools.

Among these children there is a class distinction. If you speak in English then you must be from a well to do family. If you speak in your mother tongue then you are from the other side of the spectrum. So better stay on the positive side of the social order and ditch the mother tongue.

I once asked a fellow Malayalee girl who was holding a senior position in a public relations firm how come she could not speak her language? “My father said learning Malayalam is not going to bring any economic benefits at all to me so I would be better off learning English,” was her crisp reply. Her father was on to something because I hear the same reason being given by parents who only speak English to their children. What is the point of learning your mother tongue? It’s English, Malay and Mandarin that you need to get by in this world.

Has it come to this for us Indian Malaysians? Because there is no economic value to our mother tongue so let us ditch it? On the same argument, if there is no economic value in us remaining Hindus or Sikhs etc so it is better we ditch it for any religion that will give us an economic uplift? Anything about us is for sale as long as it brings economic benefits?

One of the tried and tested ways a dominant power tries to overpower the weaker subjects is to try to take away its language and culture so that the people can be easily molded into whatever the dominant party wants them to be. When we loose our mother tongue it is just the first phase in losing our culture and our identity. But some of us aren’t too bothered about all this. When I once asked an Indian Malaysian about this ethnic group (he was a Tamil Christian) he brushed my question by saying he does not believe in divisions among people and that all should be the same. Except that in his vocabulary the “all should be the same” was that everyone should be English speaking.

Again, there is nothing wrong in being able to speak English like an Englishman or an American. Except that would there be something terribly wrong if one could also speak one’s mother tongue equally as well too?

It might be that the English have left India for more than 60 years. But Lord Macaulay’s prophesy of wanting the Indians to “think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own” and in the process “lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture” and in the end “become what we want them, a truly dominated nation” has come true.

The poet Vairamuthu once talked about a language in the Andaman Nicobar Islands, where there were only four speakers of the language left. When those four eventually die, that language would die with them. That he said is a tragedy. But the greater tragedy is when the people of a language are still around and yet despite that, the language dies because no one is able to speak it anymore, he said.

It is up to us to see that the greater language tragedy that Vairamuthu talked about does not happen to us Indian Malaysians.

1 Responses:

~sue~ Says:

hey, that was a really good post bout what is really happenin over here in malaysia. i can speal fluent malay,english,french and m proud to say i can speak and write in tamil too. but sadly, i cant speak malayalam, as i only can understand it. i wished my dad had actually taught me my own language coz i feel odd not being able to speak the one language that i am suppost to be good at.

p/s: i hope you wouldn't mind me reposting this post of urs on my blog.