Kenapa Nak Speaking BI? Why Do Some Malays Prefer to Interact In English?

A person’s identity is defined by a multitude of elements, linguistics being one of them. Judging from the incessant conversations & arguments on the social media over the use of various languages, it’s clear that many Malaysians are, indeed, still experiencing a sort of identity crisis. While the common perception around the world is that one should be allowed to speak or write in any language he feels most comfortable using, in Malaysia, many stigmas & preconceived notions are still associated with the mere choice of which language to use in public.

This leads to a common dilemma faced by many Malaysians, especially Malays, when expressing themselves in public. “Should I introduce myself in English?” “Should I tweet in English?” “Will I appear conceited if I keep using English on social media?” “Should I use Malay to fit into a certain crowd?”; these are among the most common questions the Malays have to ask themselves from time to time. Tired of being bogged down by these questions, many Malays choose to use Manglish or bahasa rojak in order to achieve a semblance of balance between using English while maintaining some street cred among their friends (apparently, using too much English can be social suicide too).

My answer would be, yes, you can use any language that you want, as long as you get your points across. What’s important is to ensure that you can eloquently express your points using the language of your choice.

After all, language is a means of self-expression, so to hell with labels, no?

Moving forward, let’s dissect the common arguments given by those who are against the practice of Malays using English in their daily interactions:

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Frequent Point #1: “Kenapa nak guna English kalau bercakap sesama Melayu?”

There are many reasons why some Malays use English when conversing with fellow Malays. First of all, it’s important to debunk the myth involving the Malay’s use of Bahasa Melayu (Malay) at home. While most of the Malays exclusively use Malay at home, there exist pockets within the Malay community itself where this convention doesn’t apply. Many middle class families have inter-generational exposure to the British culture and language, so naturally, they speak English at home. This is a reality; I know of some guys who speak no Malay at all, in spite of them being of full Malay-Indonesian ancestry. They also went to international schools and received their tertiary education overseas, so they were never exposed to learning Malay in school. Malaysia is also a heterogenous society, and many people of our generation are essentially products of mixed marriage. In many mixed families, to ensure balanced dynamics between the parents who came from different racial backgrounds and upbringings, English is often used as the primary language at home. It’s a neutral arrangement, and enables middle-of-the-road solution to the language & cultural dilemmas faced by these families.

Aforementioned cases aside, many Malays speak English among themselves as it’s the only way they get to practice using the language. Languages, unlike subjects like Mathematics or Science, cannot be mastered by the mere virtue of attending classes and lectures. You need to practice using the language often if you want to be proficient in which. Many Malays, especially those who grew up outside the urban middle-class environment, struggle to find a nurturing environment to practice their English, and who else do they have apart from their good friends to practice using the language with? After all, speaking English with their friends is much more fun than talking to themselves or to the mirror, no?

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Frequent Point #2: “Japan & Korea are highly developed nations and the people don’t even speak English!”

Yes, English isn’t as widely used in these two countries as it is in Malaysia. But it’s important to not discount the fact that Japanese & Korean languages are widely used in academic journals & publications as well, especially in comparison with Bahasa Melayu-Indonesia. I’ve been to South Korea, and while the people don’t speak much English, they have wide access to all kinds of reading material in their native language. The bookstores are filled with any Western title you can think of, but translated into Korean, for local consumption. Compare this with our situation here in Malaysia. It’s not common to see Western titles being available in Bahasa Melayu. Have you seen any work by Franz Kafka, or Orhan Pamuk, translated into Malay? The Malay sections in bookstores are often filled with religious books, cookbooks, some children’s books, and that’s all there is to it. Some of the bestselling books like the Harry Potter series & Twilight have been translated into Malay, but apart from these examples, options are very limited. There have been efforts to translate more books into Malay, but with the environment of tight scrutiny against any books published in, or translated into Malay, (remember when an Irshad Manji’s book was only banned after it was translated into Malay?) the status quo of treating English as the foremost language in knowledge seeking is not going to change anytime soon.

To seek knowledge beyond what our local textbooks entail, Malaysians have no choice but to be proficient in English.

While the Koreans are currently doing well speaking Korean and little to no English, there’s a growing awareness among the Koreans on the importance of being fluent in English, which explains the influx of expatriates working as English teachers into the country nowadays.

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Frequent Point #3: “Orang cakap BI ni semua poyo lah eh?”

Language is a powerful means of communication, and humans are programmed to speak the language they are most comfortable using, especially in everyday, casual situations. Many Malays speak English for a number of reasons, but it’s not likely that these Malays do so to impress anyone. They just want to communicate their points. After all, it’s the eloquence, wit, and the wisdom behind one’s speech that matters the most, not one’s choice of language. Language only allows you to communicate, but if your points are irrelevant, even the most sophisticated use of a language won’t be able to salvage your arguments.

No language is more posh than another. Using English doesn’t mean that someone is trying to be pompous.

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Frequent Point #4: “Kalau orang Melayu tak memperkasakan Bahasa Melayu, siapa lagi?”

Using English in your daily interaction doesn’t mean that you completely disregard the Malay language. Malay is a beautiful language that reflects the Malay community’s long oratory traditions. It’s gracious and polite. Most of the Malays, including those who speak English most of the time, still feel sentimental attachment to their native language. After all, it represents their identity and heritage.

Malaysian communities residing overseas speak English most of the time, but during their gatherings (which I got to experience from time to time during my 3-year stint in Melbourne), they still use Malay. Most of these overseas Malays can still speak perfect, mint Malay, and I don’t think this will change anytime soon.

Now, contrast this with the bastardisation of the Malay language done under the guise of “colloquialism” perpetrated by those who claim to uphold the Malay traditions in the country. Look at how many of the Malay speaking youths spell “aku” as “aq”, for instance. The dilution of Malay’s linguistic purity is also made worst by the blatant transfer of English words into mainstream Malay. Nowadays, people use advertensi in place of iklan, and bajet, instead of belanjawan.

Now, pray tell, who’s at fault?

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These are the four points I can think of at the moment; there are more, of course. Let me know, by dropping a comment or two, if you have more to add to these. Cheers.

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Speak soon,

Faizal Hamssin

 

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