FEW weeks ago in a supermarket in Kuching, I was scolded by a young man at the fish counter for saying “can I have these 5 fish please, and can you please clean them for me.”
He picked up the fish to weigh and to clean.
And I added, “saya beli barang dulu (pointing towards the aisle) selepas itu saya kembali ke sini ambil ikan.” He looked at me and said “Kamu bukan orang Pilipinakah
?” I responded, “Tidak. Saya dari gunung, orang Kelabit,” to which he responded “saya fikir kamu orang Pilipina kerana pakai bahasa Inggeris. Kenapa tidak guna bahasa Melayu. Gunalah bahasa kebangsaan. Berbanggalah dengan bahasa sendiri
I was completely taken aback. Thought to myself: am I in Sarawak?. With a puzzled look, I said “I used both languages to ‘teach’ my students in my classes....” my voice trailing as I slowly walked away, too sad to finish my sentence and too disappointed to go back for the fish. Later in class, I related the incident to my students. Almost all instantaneously sighed, “what!
Why was I deeply affected by a seemingly innocuous conversation with a young man handling fish at a counter?There were two or three issues. First, this is Sarawak where we commonly speak and switches between two to three languages in conversations.
But more so the incident touched a raw nerve I have carried for a long time being in the academe in Malaysia. My pain is mainly for my students who supposedly are at the university to ‘gather’ knowledge (along the lines of pergi ke universiti untuk menimba ilmu).
But most struggle to gather the knowledge (ilmu) they are supposed to gain. This is not because they are not intelligent or smart enough. This is not because they are simply lazy. The main reason is because of language. The fact is large portion of the ‘knowledge they are supposed to gather at the university are stored and kept in the English language. For instance, more than 90% of the materials (books, journal articles, etc) in the library are written in English.
Furthermore, there is a particular edge to the academic language. It touches mainly on practices of abstraction, conceptualization, theorisation and modeling. And these in turn demand students to understand, inquire, debate, investigate, criticize, experiment and to provide commentaries to concepts, information and ideas.
Sad to say, many students, language wise, stepped through the university archway without the fundamentals to engage with these processes and procedures. Some arrived without knowing the differences between “she is and she are,” “he were and he was”, etc. And these are basics.
All these raise questions: where to begin? Are we expected at the university level to remedy the situation? How to lead one’s students into the world of abstracts, concepts, ideas and theories if they have little handle on the language in the first place?
Honestly, it is painful to watch your students being locked out at the door of “knowledge” simply because of language barrier. Words, like containers, carry ideas, thoughts, information, imagination and creativity. To master these, you need mastery of the language. But most times, students are grappling to understand because they are void of the necessary words, vocabularies, sentences and phrases. What’s more painful to observe is this scenario affects mostly those who come from poor families, those from the rural areas and those at the fringe.
These are the ones who have no access to tuition centres, to ace schools, to private schools because their parents can’t afford the fees. As a result, their choices are limited. They have no freedom to choose from different options. They simply got stuck in a system.
In the class, one can literally sense the divide in the class between students who are able and unable to capture the knowledge one attempts to share. And this divide boils down to language. Even if one uses another language (say, Bahasa Malaysia) to explain, students still need to read. It’s undeniable that those who have mastered the English language have easier time understand the lectures, read the articles and books provided with ease, and eventually express their thoughts clearly in their essays and assignments.
Meanwhile, more often than not those who struggle to understand due to language barrier, developed low self esteem. From observations, this has driven some students further away from the very source of “knowledge” they came to gain. Every book and article becomes a reminder of one’s lack or inability to understand, perceive and absorb, simply because the words are English. In that situation, it’s easier to shy away from books. It’s a form of deprivation.
Back to the boy at the counter, who was he mimicking? There is no doubt the boy was caught in the political rhetoric about language as a medium for identity creation and as a symbol of pride, and to some as a mark of supremacy over others. But, language is more than that.
Years before the formation of Malaysia, the inhabitants of deep interiors of Sarawak took the cultural practice of traveling far as a mean to possess objects of desire, skills and knowledge. After months of journeying far, they returned to their longhouses not only with treasures such as ancient jars and beads, but also with the ability to speak four to five different languages.
They were respected. It was considered a sign of mastery of others’ knowledge. It was never a sign that those involved have become less Kayan, less Kenyah, less Iban, etc. just as the mastery of the Malay language nowadays doesn’t make someone like me more Malay than being a Kelabit. It’s high time we cease politicizing language at the expense of knowledge.