By: BDK Saldin (Sdr. Baba Deen Kitchchil Saldin)
MSC: June 16, 2016

International Mother Language Day fell on February 21
A language that exists among other languages is bound to be influenced by them. In Sri Lanka, Sinhala or Tamil is often peppered with English words. Similarly, the English spoken by Sri Lankans often includes many words and phrases borrowed from Sinhala or Tamil. With usage and time, a language evolves, and although many criticize the evolution of a language as a reason for the extinction of that language, it seems almost inevitable.

International Mother Language Day fell on February 21, and while attention is given to the main languages used in Sri Lanka, Sinhala, Tamil and English, it is also important to examine how minority languages in Sri Lanka have evolved over time.
An Austronesian language, Malay belongs to the Nusantara group. A language used in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, Malay is endangered in Sri Lanka, Eileen Dane told The Nation. Eileen Dane works towards reviving the Malay language in Sri Lanka and has organized many classes and competitions that would encourage people to speak the language.

According to Dane, not many young people speak Malay in Sri Lanka. The low number of participants in Malay language classes and competitions go on to portray the low number of people who use Malay.

“The only similarity between standard Malay and Sri Lanka Malay is the lexicon. The grammar and syntax are all different. So long as we ceased to read and write our language, grammar and syntax did not matter,” BDK Saldin writes in an essay titled, ‘Whither the Malay language in Sri Lanka?’ which was first published in ‘Mabole Malay Association (PersatuanMelayuMabole) Silver Jubilee Commemorative Issue 1984 – 2009.’

When discussing the threat faced by the Malay language, it is also important to look at the differences between what is known as standard Malay and Sri Lankan Malay. According to Dane, Sri Lankan Malay includes a number of Sinhala and Tamil words. She used the example of the Tamil word konjum, which means a small amount, and how it is used when speaking Malay.

Saldin writes, “If we are to preserve the present Sri Lanka Malay we must not forget that it is a spoken language and has never been translated into the written word.” According to Saldin, Malay used to be written and read in Sri Lanka, but the current usage of the Malay language is limited to colloquialism. He also explained that while Malays in outstation areas speak the language, those in Colombo do not do so.

A reason for the decrease in Malay usage could be indirectly connected to the Sinhala Only Act. Saldin explains that when the medium of instruction was English, Malays spoke Malay at home. However, when Sinhala became the medium of instruction, Malays could no longer study in English. Since many believed English was essential to gain meaningful employment, Malays began to speak English at home. This meant that they no longer spoke Malay as they used to.

Usage further reduced when females also started working, which meant that they too, began learning and speaking English instead of Malay. Eileen Dane explained that another reason for the decrease in use of Malay is marriage with those outside the Malay community. She explains that although Muslim, Moors speak Tamil and not Malay. This further reduces the usage of the language.

Speaking about reviving the Malay language in Sri Lanka, Dane says that it is important for young people to take the initiative, especially regarding grammar and spelling. She also explained that it is necessary to have Malay language texts and programs, so that those learning the language will have reading material.

“It is literature that provides the flesh and blood. Sri Lanka Malay literature is non-existent. We have to create it,” Saldin writes in ‘Whither the Malay language in Sri Lanka?’ This goes on to show that Malay usage in Sri Lanka will be greatly benefitted by texts, which is a view shared by Dane.

Dane also spoke about the lack of representation for Malays, which also has a negative impact on the usage of Malay. “There is no longer an appointed member of parliament,” Dane says. She also explained that the Malay language paper has been scrapped by the Education Department because no one sits for the exam.

“We want to start at the grass roots level,” Dane says, adding that it is an uphill task. She explained that Malay can be revived even if grandparents speak to their grandchildren in Malay. By hearing Malay from their early days, a person would be familiar with the language.

“Language is the icon of a community,” Achinthya Bandara says, adding that a language represents the identity, cultural norms and tradition of a community. He adds that there are a number of languages spoken in Sri Lanka, but due to a lack of awareness, many label minorities as burghers, and do not identify them as other ethnic communities. Thus it is through language that they are represented, for instance the gypsies who speak Telugu. Awareness of minority languages and communities is so low in Sri Lanka that, as Bandara points out, very few people in areas where Sri Lankan Portuguese creole is spoken are aware of the language.

Representation of and awareness about minority languages is important as they portray cultural and social diversity. Bandara also said that during a time when people are fighting for the right to study and work using their mother language, it is important to raise awareness about minority languages in Sri Lanka.

Speaking about Sri Lankan Portuguese creole, Achinthya Bandara says that it is a language spoken by about 1,000 people, especially in Batticaloa and Trincomalee. The language is a mixture of Portuguese and the prominent language of the area, for instance Sinhala or Tamil. Sri Lankan Portuguese creole is the language of Sri Lankans with Portuguese ancestry, and a similar language can be found in certain areas of India, for instance Kerala.

However, at present, the language is endangered and vulnerable. “There is no written form of Sri Lankan Portuguese creole, and it is passed from generation to generation through oral tradition,” Bandara says. The younger generations only speak very little Sri Lankan Portuguese creole, due to a lack of opportunity to use the language and also because it is no longer useful in social encounters. Bandara explains that this is because those who speak the language often interact with those who speak Sinhala or Tamil.

During a time when there is concern over the country’s main languages, it is also important to focus on the minority languages. A country’s languages are part of its identity, and this is so for Sri Lanka and Malay too.

Published in

Share on Google Plus

SHARE: Someone You Know Needs to Hear This