By Soon Li Wei
KUALA LUMPUR (Bernama) – I can still recall a Chinese youth I met at a clinic two years ago who could hardly communicate in Bahasa Melayu.
I was waiting for my turn to see the doctor when the young man who was probably in his 20s asked me in Mandarin if I could help him to fill the registration form as he did not understand Bahasa Melayu.
I helped him out and later, out of curiosity, asked the youth, who only wanted to be identified as Shin, if he had studied in a Chinese medium school.
He replied in the affirmative, saying that he went to a private Chinese school and had only recently returned to Malaysia after pursuing his higher studies in Taiwan. He also told me that he was looking for a job.
Having watched him attempting to communicate with the nurse in Bahasa Melayu earlier, I could sense that Shin was not comfortable conversing with people who did not speak the same language as him.
He asked me how I could speak Bahasa Melayu so fluently. I told him I grew up in a kampung in Kuala Krai, Kelantan, and communicated with my non-Chinese neighbours and friends in Malay.
Just before my turn to see the doctor, I advised Shin to improve his command of the national language by going for intensive classes as it would come in handy when he went for job interviews.
I told him not to worry about making mistakes when speaking Bahasa Melayu as he would learn from them and eventually be able to speak the language fluently.
To be honest, I feel a little frustrated with the attitude of some non-Malays who think it is not necessary to have a good command of the national language.
To them, Bahasa Melayu is a language that is only used in Malaysia, unlike English which is an international language.
Undoubtedly, one’s environment and system of education greatly influence one’s command of any language other than the mother tongue.
To borrow the words of National Laureate and senior lecturer at the Faculty of Creative Writing, National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage (ASWARA), Dr Anwar Ridhwan, the process of mastering a language starts with learning to pronounce words correctly before moving to the vocabulary and grammar aspects.
The next step would be listening, writing and reading as well as conversing with native speakers of the language one wants to learn. Only this way can one grow familiar with speaking in that language.
I grew up with my grandparents in Kampung Guchil 4 in Kuala Krai and we were the only Chinese family in the predominantly Malay village.
Every day after school, I would play with my neighbours’ children aged between five and 12 at their homes. At times, their parents would invite me to eat with them. That was the time I learned to speak Bahasa Melayu, albeit in the Kelantanese dialect.
I studied at a Chinese primary school and due to my good command of the national language, I often participated in Bahasa Melayu elocution and essay writing competitions which enabled me to polish my pronunciation and grammar skills.
For my secondary education, I went to a national school where I got to befriend students of different races. I enjoyed reading Malay books and novels and the very first storybook I read, titled “Saudara Kembar Di Sekolah Tengku Ashikin”, is a translation of a book written by Enid Blyton.
I developed a love for Bahasa Melayu reading materials, thanks to all the books I read in school.
It was not easy for me to learn to speak the national language fluently but I was able to do it due to my strong desire. Today I can speak Bahasa Melayu like any other native speaker.
People I meet are often surprised when they hear me speak Bahasa Melayu like a native speaker.
On my part, I am sad not many non-Malays can speak Bahasa Melayu fluently. In fact, if migrant workers can speak the language well within months of landing on our shores, why can’t Malaysians be more conversant in Malay?
It is not too late for them to improve their command of the national language. Attend intensive courses or teach yourself by conversing in Bahasa Melayu with your friends. And, start reading more articles or other materials written in Bahasa Melayu.
As Malaysians, we have to be proud of our national language because language is the soul of the nation.
Principal fellow at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Malay World and Civilisation Prof Datuk Dr Teo Kok Seong said the main reason why many non-Malays are not fluent in Bahasa Melayu is that they are not daring enough to venture out of their comfort zones.
“Not all non-Malays are like that but there are some who prefer to mingle with their own kind, speak the same language and eat together. They feel uneasy whenever they find themselves in a group where they are the minority.
“The education system, namely vernacular education, is also a factor preventing them from mastering the national language. If we want to empower the national language, a single-school stream is the best as this is the way to forge unity from a young age,” he said.
He said parents should encourage their children to mingle with friends of various races.
“If their parents don’t set a good example, how can they educate their children to cultivate the spirit of unity? If they (parents) are not proud to uphold Bahasa Melayu as the national language and prefer to focus on empowering their own mother tongue, how can we progress? What will outsiders think when they find out there are some Malaysians who can’t even speak the national language,” he asked.
Undeniably, prominent figures and politicians also play an important part in promoting love for the national language.
In the local entertainment industry, local artistes such as Dr Soo Wincci, Alvin Chong, Lim Mei Fen and Angeline Tan are known to speak Bahasa Melayu fluently and they have many fans.
About two years ago, I happened to interview Lim Mei Fen, who is an actress and producer, and she told me she became fluent in the language after she got involved in Malay theatre productions.
“Bahasa Melayu is the language that unites people of various races. If I don’t speak the national language fluently, I wouldn’t be able to mingle with people of other races which is a shame really as I would be stuck in my own comfort zone.
“I’m proud that as a non-Malay artiste I am not only a role model for our multiracial society but am also promoting the spirit of unity among the non-Malays,” she added.
(The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.)
Translated by Rema Nambiar
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