Official name: Bahasa Melayu (or Bahasa Malaysia)English name: Malay languageSpoken in: Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia and Southern ThailandWritten in: Arabic Jawi script and Latin Rumi script
I was born in Malaysia in an ethnic Malay family and all of the members of my extended family are primarily Malay-speaking. My father is from Malacca, while my mother is from Selangor, and both speak the same dialect of Malay: the West Coast dialect, which is virtually the same dialect used in media of the country.
MY STORY – LIFE IN MALAYSIA
Malay was obviously the first language I spoke when I learnt how to talk from a young age. I was conversational in ‘baby-talk’ Malay at age of 2 and can talk in the comprehensible form at four years old. Of course, I was not speaking with a high level of language. I was living in Terengganu State in the East Coast for most of my years before I moved abroad. I learnt to speak the state’s regional dialect, Terengganu Malay (Bahasa Terengganu) but today I have almost forgotten it all. I only spoke it with my friends though, at home, I did not speak it since my parents were not from Terengganu.
There were many shows on TV which I enjoyed watching in Malay. I think the most memorable series was the Japanese anime Doraemon (ドラえもん), which was dubbed into Malay. The show aired often on the free-to-air channels and my parents also bought VCDs of it. I enjoyed watching so much that sometimes I pretended to be the characters in the show with my sister! The language used in the show was more formal than the colloquialisms of the dialects, which helped to strengthen my grasp of the language at a young age.
Asuh, a popular monthly periodical for children which I used to read quite often
I also loved reading children’s magazines and listening to nasheed, or Islamic-themed songs, which were all in Malay. Occasionally I read newspapers but never really understood much as a young boy due to their strong political overtones.
My schooling started with kindergarten, and I was taught to read and write in Malay, English and Arabic. I was taught to read and write both the Rumi Latin script and the Jawi Arabic script and because of this, I had a pretty solid foundation in my first year of primary school when I turned 7. Subjects such as Malay Language, Islamic Studies, Physical Education and Arabic language were taught in Malay while Mathematics and Science at the time was taught in English. This was a blessing for me, because I had a strong basic in Malay unlike the rest of my siblings; none of them went to Malaysian public school. I could read Malay in both scripts with ease and although my vocabulary wasn’t very wide, I was able to use a good range for that level. I achieved high grades for all subjects, including Malay.
The Jawi-Arabic alphabet. Note the addition of extra letters which are not found in the Arabic language.
LIFE IN OMAN – 6 YEARS
Oman was the first place I encountered where I could not use Malay in public. Everywhere around me were signage in Arabic and English, not an ounce of Malay could be seen. Aside the minor culture shock, I adapted quite well with life there despite the linguistic difference.
I enrolled in PDO School in Muscat, Oman, and being an international Shell school, English was the prime language of instruction. Everyone spoke English there, even the Malaysian students I befriended from my class. It felt peculiar at first, I expected them to speak Malay between themselves but having lived overseas longer than I have, they conversed in English only. I continued speaking Malay at home and with my siblings as I would in Malaysia. This is probably the only way I kept my mother tongue alive.
As I got used to life there, I was fluently bilingual in both languages by my second year. I devised a rigid but useful system for myself when I was in Oman: English should be used anywhere else such as school but as soon as I step into my front door, Malay rules supreme. I could not talk in English at home without feeling awkward, so its use was only limited to substituting words which cannot be expressed in Malay properly. Talking Malay outside of home is limited to conversations between my siblings, parents and parents’ friends. I rarely talked to my Malay friends in Oman in Malay, but occasionally I do this to pass on a secret message so that nobody else could understand.
My Malay slowly deteriorated over time, as it was not replenished with an education system which offered the Malay subject for me to improve. The form of Malay spoken at home was mostly colloquial without much proper grammar use. I was still very much conversational, but I had gradually lost many words from my vocabulary and often replaced with English words. Arabic words even entered everyday usage in our Malay, usually only to refer to Arabic cuisine, such as shawarma. Even my accent was changing; once my mother’s friends jokingly referred to my Malay accent as Indonesian. Since I rarely wrote Malay (there was no need for it: all of the schoolwork was in English), I even forgotten how to spell some words using Jawi script and improvised with my own system based on how it was written in Rumi. With my increased use of the Internet with its mostly English content, English eventually overtook Malay as my strongest language in terms of fluency and skill.
At first, this did not really bother me. I continued with whatever I was doing in school and did not give much thought about it. As time progressed, I began to realise the importance of preserving this language in myself. It is a symbol of my unique identity as a Malay and Malaysian. What is a Malay person if he does not speak the language of his people? I became more aware of the need to improve my fluency in this language. I knew Malay friends from Oman who lived overseas for so long that they began forgetting their own language. Some could still understand and communicate in Malay but some spoke very little of it. This even happened to those who actually did go to Malaysian public school before moving abroad. Some expat kids no longer spoke Malay at home and preferred speaking English to their family members.
Translation: Prioritise the Malay language (Sign in Brunei)
I did not want myself or my siblings to suffer the same fate as those who abandoned their language. There would be huge disadvantages, for instance, expatriate children who return to Malaysia, Brunei or any Malay-speaking country but hardly knows the language will have a hard time adjusting to the local environment or the public schooling system. Communication with extended family members such as grandparents or cousins would be compromised. Everyone in the home country would expect a Malay knowing how to speak Malay, and the society will regard it as ‘strange’ if a Malay did not know the language of his forefathers.
Action was needed to preserve the language in my home. Every year, our family returned to Malaysia for a 2-month-long vacation during the summer. In 2008, my parents enrolled me in the local state-run Islamic school in my village, Sekolah Rendah Agama Kanchong Darat. Here I made friends with some locals and although I did not learn Malay directly as a subject, it was the language of instruction. Jawi writing is dominant in Islamic schools like these, unlike the public schooling system which used Rumi except for Islamic-related subjects. I went to school again in 2010, this time in an Islamic integrated school located in the nearby village of Sungai Kelambu. This school blended the public schooling system and the state curriculum of Islamic school into one, which meant that Malay was taught as a subject. In addition to these, in 2011, I took private tutoring to improve my Malay at home.
When I returned to Oman, I did not have the privilege of formal Malay education. I did all I could at home to maintain the level I had improved when I went back to Malaysia. I discouraged my siblings speaking English with each other. In fact, I often corrected them when they use English words in Malay sentences by telling them to use the proper Malay word instead. Unfortunately even though my aim was to help, I was only rebuked by my parents for ‘bothering’ my brothers and sisters. When I needed to write Malay, I only wrote in the Jawi script because I felt that it deserved more attention than Rumi. Jawi script is dying and almost no-one uses it everyday in Malaysia. As a self-proclaimed traditionalist, I refused to use the Rumi script and uses Jawi whenever possible.
Despite all of these measures, my Malay never regained the same status as the best language in terms of fluency, even until today. English was dominating my school, outdoor and social life while Malay had very little chance to be enhanced as long as I lived outside my home country.
RETURN TO MALAYSIA AND LIFE IN IIS
Late 2012 marked the end of my expatriate life in Oman and spelled a new beginning for my return to Malaysia. My parents and siblings moved to Sakhalin, Russia while I had to live in Malaysia with my younger sister without them. I enrolled in the International Islamic School in Grade 9, and I will save the story of my first days in school for later. English is again the medium of instruction in school, but a significant portion of students in IIS are Malays who, unlike those living abroad, still spoke Malay among each other.
In this school I was able to select among two foreign languages: Malay and French (Arabic was made compulsory for all). The choice was easy to make: I chose Malay over French. There were two categories of Malay taught for students in my grade which were native and non-native levels. In spite of my previous lack of Malay education, I was able to catch up with the rest of the class. The standard taught at the class was for Malaysian secondary school level (Tingkatan/Form 3) and the teacher herself used Malay as the language of instruction.
I did my best to catch up what I had missed for so long. What I found most difficult was learning different names which refer to the various grammar rules. I know them and understand how they are used but we have to remember how it works linguistically. When speaking, I never give much thought about how I phrase my sentences since the grammar rules in the spoken (colloquial) form of Malay is very lax. Many important connectives, prepositions and marker words are used interchangeably carrying a multitude of meanings. Words also get shortened. Tidak becomes tak, meaning ‘no‘ or ‘not’. Dekat becomes kat and it not only means ‘close’ or ‘near’, but it could also mean ‘at’, ‘almost’ and ‘intimate’. This simplicity and interchangeability is lost in formal standard Malay, where for example adalah and ialah, although seemingly similar in meaning are used in different contexts.
Although Standard Formal Malay is the standard taught in schools throughout Malaysia, practically nobody speaks it in day-to-day life, myself included. Every Malaysian speaks the dialect of the state he or she originates from, mine being the West Coast Malay dialect, the closest dialect to the formal standard Malay. Although as I said before that I learnt the Terengganu dialect, I rarely speak it at home (since neither of my parents are from there). I made new friends in my new school who tend to speak Malay with each other rather than English. Blending in was not as easy as I thought; although I speak the colloquial Malay at home, I usually used a more polite, hence more formal way of addressing myself and others. This is where a slight problem came up.
In Malay, we have a hierarchical system of respecting others by way of pronouns. At home I talk to my parents and obviously I need to use the highest level of respectful pronoun for ‘I’ which is ‘saya’. I could also be expressed as ‘aku’, but this is less respectful, even rude to some people. This should only be used with close friends, not the elderly or strangers.
The problem with this was that the way I speak became a matter of a joke for the others. Without realising it myself I was making myself more aloof and unapproachable by using the formal language I was used to. This kind of isolated me and made me feel awkward around the people in my school – especially the Malay speakers. Nevertheless, I eventually overcame this problem and by the time I finished my schooling in Malaysia, I felt comfortable using the informal language.
THE CURRENT SITUATION OF MY MALAY LANGUAGE
(will be continued…)