Saturday, September 30

We speak many languages because we can!


“THIS is amazing! You seem to seamlessly slide into different languages when you speak among yourselves!”

Such was the reaction of a tourist from the United Kingdom, whom the Eye was showing around Sarawak recently. Her remark came about after witnessing the Eye bargain for an item at a souvenir shop in a mix of English, Bahasa Sarawak and a smattering of Hokkien.

“You do it so effortlessly! As if it is just one language and I have noticed everyone here speaks more than two languages!” she added in awe. Until this English lady mentioned it, the Eye had never really thought of this jumble of languages and dialects that we speak here as “amazing” or awe-inspiring.

Most of the time, we do it unknowingly, this conversing in a mix of languages. For those of us who grew up in a multilingual household, it is possible to string a sentence together using more than three languages.

Malaysians are at the very least bilingual. This means all Malaysians know at least two languages: our mother tongue – be it the many languages in Sarawak and Sabah, a Chinese dialect or Mandarin, or an Indian language or dialect and or Malay and English, which are both taught in schools.

Come to think of it, this is what makes us unique, especially here in Borneo as many of us are able to speak at least four languages.

We are likely able to speak standard Malay and English. Add that on with our mother tongue, which could either be Bidayuh, Iban, Melanau or any one of the Orang Ulu languages or in the case of Sabah, the likes of Murut, Kadazan-Dusun, Bajau, Paitan and many more. And let us not forget our lovely and unique Bahasa Sarawak.

Yet, because it has become pretty much an automatic thing for us, we give no second thought to why we speak this way, or how lucky we really are to be able to do so.

Yes, Eye say we are lucky because we have this amazing gift, as the English lady put it – the gift of the opportunity to live among different ethnic groups, as well as to learn and speak more than one language.

“Where I come from, majority speak only English, the younger ones may speak with a touch of their local accents, depending on which areas they are from. Those who speak a language other than English are those who are of Asian or Middle Eastern descent, or those who have gone the extra mile to take lessons in a foreign language,” said the English lady.

Hearing this, the Eye felt that we should be proud as we are indeed blessed to be able to speak and understand the many languages in Borneo, without having to attend formal classes (other than Malay and English of course).

In Sarawak, it is common for many of us to understand the languages of another community. Because we are surrounded by diverse ethnic groups at school, work and even at home, we pick up a little of everything.

“Hey kids! Mamuh gik! Ai ki chiak tua tok and still playing outside! Uncle is already on the way to the restaurant liaw! Anang manchal! Masuk umah kinek tok juak!”

This is common in the Eye’s household when calling the kids in from play – English, Bahasa Sarawak, Bidayuh, Iban and even Hokkien words put together to string perfectly coherent sentences.

We speak this way because everyone in the household will know exactly what this mishmash of words mean. No questions. No need for translation.

The kids are familiar with all these languages and have the same ability to string sentences together with words from different languages, or switch from one language to another.

Speaking a mishmash of languages does not mean that we are unable to string together proper sentences in the individual languages. We are still proficient in the different languages that we use.

Linguists and researchers have found that multilinguals (people who speak more than two languages) exhibit many advantages over monolinguals (those who speak only one language).

These advantages include personal, social, academic and professional benefits. In the article, ‘The Benefits of Multilingualism’, author Michal B Paradowski of the Institute of Applied Linguistics, University of Warsaw writes that multilinguals are more efficient communicators and are consistently better able to deal with distractions.

Paradowski also concludes that multilinguals also have a better ability to listen, have sharper memories, are are better problem-solvers gaining multiple perspectives on issues at hand and have improved critical thinking abilities.

Studies have also demonstrated that people who know more than one language usually think more flexibly than monolinguals.

But it is this following sentence in Paradowski’s article that sums up our way of life here in Sarawak and Sabah – our acceptance towards people of different ethnicities, cultures and religions, as well as our open mindsets.

“Being multilingual allows a person to better understand and appreciate people of other countries, thereby lessening racism, xenophobia, and intolerance, as the learning of a new language usually brings with it a revelation of a new culture.”

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