Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Don't Stop Speaking

In recent years, much has been made of the idea that humans possess a "language instinct": infants easily learn to speak because all languages follow a set of rules built into their brains. While there is no doubt that human thinking influences the form that language takes, if [Nicholas] Evans [of the Australian National University in Canberra and [Stephen] Levinson [of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands] are correct (that language diversity is the "crucial fact for understanding the place of language in human cognition"), language in turn shapes our brains. This suggests that humans are more diverse than we thought, with our brains having differences depending on the language environment in which we grew up. And that leads to a disturbing conclusion: every time a language becomes extinct, humanity loses an important piece of diversity.


The more we learn about languages, the more apparent the differences become - "Towel of Babel":
1. Some languages have 11 distinct sounds with which to make words, while others have 144. Sign languages have none. As sounds that were once thought impossible are discovered, the idea that there is a fixed set of speech sounds is being abandoned.
2. Some languages use a single word where others need an entire sentence. In English, for example, you might say "I cooked the wrong meat for them again". In the Indigenous Australian language Bininj Gun-wok you would say "abanyawoihwarrgahmarneganjginjeng". The more we know about language processing, the less likely it seems that these two structures are processed in the same way.
3. Even plurals are not straightforward. The Kiowa people of North America use a plural marker that means "of unexpected number". Attached to "leg", the marker means "one or more than two". Attached to "stone", it means "just two".
4. Some major word classes are not found in all languages. English, for example, lacks "ideophones" where diverse feelings about an event and its participants are jammed into one word - as in "rawa-dawa" from the Mundari language of the Indian subcontinent meaning "the sensation of suddenly realising you can do something reprehensible, and no one is there to witness it".


Languages have become extinct throughout history, but today more are threatened than ever. Around 200 are critically endangered, with fewer than 10 speakers. With each one that is lost we lose a piece of human diversity.


After reading this article title Talking Heads in NewScientist (vol 206 No 2762, 29th May 2010), I remembered a conversation I had with my Dusun housemate. Being an indigenous resident from Sabah, she was exposed to many languages of other indigenous people when she was back in hometown, such as Kadazan and Lun Bawang. She also can distinguish Bidayuh's from Iban's though both are from Sarawak. But she told me, less people are able to communicate in their mother tongues now, especially those who live in KK, and other big cities. They did have classes for their mother tongues as elective subjects in school. But encouragement wasn't there for students to take up elective subjects like this. And people from West Malaysia brushes everything about them aside with a term "Dan Lain-Lain".

If Mandarin was only an elective subject in my school, I wouldn't have bothered to take it, either, let alone went for tuition for it. Believe it or not, the tuition fee I spent for BM was much more than fees for other subjects, and even though I took Mandarin in SPM, I've never went for tuition for it. Thank God I got an A1 for my BM in SPM (I told myself I'd be really mad at myself if I only got an A2 for my BM, after all the karangan & rumusan I wrote and past years questions and Skor A exercises I did for every week for good five years in high school). And I only got an A2 for my Mandarin paper. Of course, these results will never truly reflect how proficient one is with a language, but at least I went all out to learn this language and surrendered myself to the education (Skor A) system in Malaysia.

One may argue about survival of the fittest. But I feel very sorry to hear what Yvonne has told me. I always feel a light is dimmed whenever I hear how a language is having lesser and lesser speakers as days go by. We in Malaysia have the right environment to embrace or celebrate or at least preserve linguistic diversity. But what have we done, actually?

If you have never own the experience of growing up in a language that is not spoken by the majority, and seeing less people are speaking in it now, how could you possibly understand the pain when the language is lost? One may say, alright, then let no one learns it, so that no one will feel the pain! But an easy way out is not always the right way. The precious knowledge of a language brushes pass you, you missed it and weren't in time to experience it, with this you've lost something worthed more than gold. One may argue that if we live in Malaysia, we should let the national language unites us. But that's how one is missing out the point of being in a multicultural country - and wasting national resources/ human capital. BM is indeed important and has brought us together quite successfully. But it doesn't mean other languages are of no importance should the number of speaker is less insignificant than the major ones.

To most of us, the culture of indigenous races from East Malaysia only exist on the performing stage, in their traditional costumes. In fact, to many Malaysians, culture means dance performance. No. Culture is the way we live our daily lives. Practices. Principles. Moral values and ethics. Languages. Food. and etc. Culture might transform through time. But effort must be made to preserve what is uniquely ours through generations. Start with preserving the languages and hence the uniqueness and diversity of human thought of each speaker. Please.


Xu Vin said...

for me personally, bcz i'm not sure if it applies similarly to others, not being able to master a language well is painful for me. yeah i do agree that a master of a language would feel the pain of her language being lost in a sea of other international languages spoken by the majority, esp when u urself have experienced and appreciate the beauty of the literature.
as a so called 'banana', i wish i had been to a chinese school n learnt chinese, how to read and write and speak fluently and appreciate the proverbs and mandarin word play. its painful to not be able to do so, esp when its my supposed-to-be mother tongue. i wish i had the opportunity to grow up speaking a multitude of other dialects s well, such as hokkien, fu chow, hakka etc. well at least 1.
however, that said, i cant say i've done justice to prove the fact that i say i reli want to learnt them, bcz i didnt put in effort to practise speaking or learn them up on my own (bcz if i reli wanted to its actually possible n easy thru watching movies/getting books). a little hypocritical. *looks away sheepishly*

Gine said...

thanks for your comment, vin :) I think in your case, english is your mother tongue! it's good if you can also pick up other languages along the way, but the language one grows up in is more important than what is "suppose" to be his/her mother tongue. d reason i feel deeply for mandarin is not because of me being a chinese, but because i've spent all my childhood and teenage life speaking and thinking (and sometimes dreaming)in mandarin - refer back the article on how a languague shapes our brain. it's a part of me, the way sometimes my tongue just want to speak in mandarin after a long hiatus of it. and after that, go back to the longing for english again :)