Preserving Bidayuh language


Any form of successful conservation, especially when it is related to culture and tradition, has to come from the people involved. No amount of outside help can conserve and protect a dying culture if its people do not have the desire to do so.

LEARNING PROCESS: Children playing with educational toys to improve their cognitive skills.

DAYAK Bidayuh National Association (DBNA) president Ik Pahon has exhorted the Bidayuhs to set up their own Heritage Play Schools (HPS) in their villages to help conserve and protect their language.

He urged them to sacrifice a little for the love of their culture and tradition by keeping their language alive through these schools.

HPS is a self-financing community-based playschool for children below kindergarten age.

Ik Pahon assured the villagers DBNA would provide the technical support.

“Let’s be proud of our culture, our tradition. Let’s sacrifice a bit of our money to perpetuate our language to ensure the continuance of the Bidayuh Heritage.”

It was this love and passion that drove Bidayuh leaders to approach SIL International (formerly Summer Institute of Linguistics) and later Unesco, for help to preserve and promote their language. HPS in nine villages were set up as a result.

What prompted the move was that the Bidayuh language was dwindling, and gradually breaking down when the community began speaking it with infusions of other languages. Ethnic words were forgotten and lost, replaced by words of Malay and English. The Bidayuh tongue had begun its journey to extinction.

What has happened to the language is inevitable as it’s the natural course of any tribal language viewed as insignificant to any form of progress and development — academic or careerwise — by its own people.

Almost every country has gone through this problem — the only difference is the effort of its people to preserve and protect their language.

For many, dwindling languages on the periphery of global culture, supported by a few campaigning linguists, seem an insurmountable challenge but there are a few that bear the testimony of successful salvage.

The Bidayuh language is the core identity of the community in Sarawak. It is quintessentially their pride.

Given the close links between the language and identity of the community, the Bidayuhs, with the current trend, stand to lose their culture and tradition if their language is allowed to cease with passing time.

Concerned about their dwindling language and alarmed by the eventual negative outcome if they did nothing, the Research and Development Movement of Singai (Redeems) took the bull by the horns and formed the Malaysia branch of SIL International to help conserve the Bidayuh language.

That positive step is a milestone in language preservation in the state as the Bidayuhs are the first of the country’s 27 ethnic tribes to make the effort. The Dayak Bidayuh National Association (DBNA) was put in charge of the task.

Explained Josak Siam, DBNA multi lingual project coordinator: “The intention is preserve and promote the Bidayuh Language at homes, schools and among Bidayuh communities to ensure its continued usage and practice.”

The move is aimed at developing a standardised writing system for all Bidayuh dialects as well as expanding the existing body of Bidayuh literature.

Also in the works are the compilation of forgotten or lost words for a Bidayuh dictionary and the development of a curriculum and resource for the language to be taught in schools.

Through this project, it is hoped the Bidayuh language and culture will be promoted among the community as well as to the rest of the world.

The Bidayuh Language Development project was implemented in 2001 and Unesco set up its first multi-lingual education pilot project in Malaysia for the Bidayuhs.

“We couldn’t undo what had happened but we could reset a trend,” Josak said.

Pre-school children are their ambassadors and they will help perpetuate the language.

An HLPS has already been set up in the villages of Pasir Hilir, Gahat Mawang, Bunuk, Skio and Jakaw. The first four playschools there were funded by Unesco until this year when they have to be self-financing.

The project was so well-received by the villagers that five more schools have been set up in Serasot, Bogag, Sinjok, Apar and Atas this year.

All the nine pre-schools are community-based and the villages concerned are responsible for their finances with DBNA chipping in partially.

Josak explained: “The programme for the first year of the Multilingual Education Project (MLE) is conducted wholly in the Bidayuh language and aimed at building the children’s eloquence in the language to allow them to talk about themselves and the world while appreciating their culture.”

For three hours every morning, the class would develop the children’s cognitive, social, physical and emotional skills through play and interaction, he said, adding that pre-reading and writing skills were also taught in the class.

The programme is for children between three and four years old.

Next year will see five and six year-olds attending a two-year kindergarten programme to develop their writing and learning skills in Bidayuh.

Subjects such as math and science are included in the syllabus while the other languages — English and Bahasa Malaysia — will be introduced orally.

“When the children learn to read and write in their mother tongue, they develop skills that can be transferred to any language.

“As they progress to the formal setup where they have to learn English and Bahasa Malaysia, these skills are already familiar.

“The students only need to learn the second language without the added burden to learn reading and writing at the same time,” Josak said.