How the national language could lead to national unity

If all Malaysians could speak fluent Malay, it would help foster national unity in the country despite our diversity. The lack of fluency among some Malaysians when interacting among themselves could lead to a psychological barrier. It could create a mindset that says they are interacting with fellow citizens “not of their own kind”. In Kelantan, for example, the Chinese, Indians and Thais at all levels are able to speak fluent Malay when communicating with each other. We can witness better race relations in the state despite the people there subscribing to different faiths.

The Malay language has generally been gaining traction as the nation’s lingua franca. Over 90% of casual communication in the country is done in Malay. Whether it is poorly-spoken pidginised Malay or otherwise, it has become a common language for all and sundry in social interactions. In fact, the majority of Malaysians can understand spoken Malay better than English.

Regrettably, though, there are still many Malaysians who find it difficult to speak in the national language despite six decades of independence.

In most other countries, learning the national language is nurtured at the primary level of education. Students in these countries begin acquiring the language at a very young age. Ethnic groups living in these countries grow up using their national language. In countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines, all ethnic groups are able to speak the national language fluently and with ease. The national language has become their native language and this has greatly helped them foster national unity.

A sense of patriotism

As citizens of a country, we have to have a sense of patriotism. Malaysians should listen to the prime minister of Singapore, who has addressed his people in fluent Malay on several occasions. Malay is, after all, the national language of Singapore although the language is not the medium of instruction in schools. This must have inspired Singaporeans to emulate their prime minster, though Singaporeans in general do not speak fluent Malay.

In our local scene, with the dawn of a new Malaysia, we are now given the opportunity to listen to non-Malay ministers on TV, especially those from DAP, expressing themselves in fluent Malay in Parliament and when making press statements. They have made Malaysians really proud. They have shown to the people that they are true Malaysians who can articulate proficiently in the national language. Many MPs, though, are still not comfortable with the national language.

Unfortunately, at our school level, studies have shown that a significant number of schoolchildren lack interest in learning the Malay language. They may feel that Malay is not their first language, or perhaps they think the language has little commercial or academic value, so why bother to learn it? Little do they realise that as Malaysians, they need to have affection for the country’s national language which is known as the “soul of the nation” (bahasa jiwa bangsa).

In the local scenario, having schools of different streams has to an extent relegated the national language to a second or third language. Some may have the flawed opinion that the language will give them no commercial value later on in life. They are oblivious to the fact that basic and simple business discourse and transactions in the country are still substantively done in Malay.

Also, some may have a false prejudice towards the language thinking that it’s not their mother tongue. Without parental support, students grow up with a lackadaisical attitude or lose interest in seriously learning the language. This cold attitude towards the national language has to be nipped in the bud if Malaysians desire to build a nation where all can be united under a common language.

Surprisingly, despite going through 11 to 13 years of primary and secondary education, there are Malaysians who cannot speak fluent Malay. There are some who dropped out from vernacular schools after the primary level who cannot speak even rudimentary Malay to communicate with others. This undesirable symptom is seldom found in other countries. Malaysians have to take pride in their national language and be proficient in the language, no matter what their social standing is.

Schooling has not contributed much

Nevertheless, upon observing the school curriculum, it may also not be true that some students are uninterested in acquiring the language for the reason that it is a second or third language, not their mother tongue. Schooling does not seem to have contributed much to this cause for the simple reason that learning the language has not been made motivating enough.

Structured syllabi in schools have made the learning of this subject more geared towards passing examinations. Students are generally forced to learn the language to pass examinations. But then again, even scoring in written examinations has not made students fluent in spoken Malay. One reason for this setback is that less emphasis is given to the speaking component of the language.

Making Malaysians proficient in the national language is not a herculean task if there’s a will to do so by educationists and if it is done beginning at the early stage of schooling. In fact, more can be done to make learning the subject interesting if the learning and teaching is not too structured or controlled. If the process is too structured, sophisticated and filled with hair-splitting stuff like idioms and language metaphors to be memorised too early at the primary level, the whole process of learning becomes boring.

One way to attract learners is to make the process of teaching and learning the language simple and enjoyable. More emphasis has to be given on spoken Malay at the primary level and the speaking component made compulsory in all examinations.

Depending on some academics to create a conducive environment for learning the subject has not been effective either as they tend to make it too academic, sophisticated and tedious with their super-duper theories on language learning and expectations. It’s not always fair then to blame students if they find it mind-numbing to learn the national language. Language is best acquired when there is a natural liking for it and if it is made exciting for learners.

If the subject matter is made too complex too soon at the lower level of primary school, and the standard set is too lofty, this will deter learners from developing a penchant for acquiring the language. When the syllabus is too demanding, a teaching approach that is not inspiring enough in modern-day techno-oriented learning, ineffectual classroom activities and the lack of a reading habit among pupils will make learning the language more ineffectual.

Idiomatic or metaphoric expressions should best be introduced at a higher level for those who choose to delve deeper into the subject after grasping the rudiments of the language at the lower level of education. It is not important yet to deductively delve into “pantun”, “syair”, “gurindam”, “puisi”, classical texts and knotty proverbs at the lower level, though rhymes and songs could be encouraged to induce learners’ interest and proficiency in the language.

Stress more on spoken Malay

Making language learning a difficult process does not necessarily reflect a high standard in education. The syllabus content too has to be simplified to make the whole process of learning the language fun, triggering in learners the desire to build up their interest and bolstering their dexterity in acquiring the language.

Learners, for that matter, have to be encouraged to stress more on their spoken Malay and at the same time focus on refining their enunciation skills to be able to articulate like native speakers of the language. The speaking component of the national language has to be made the focus in the school syllabus to make Malaysians grow up more proficient and comfortable with the language.

A nation that speaks a common language fluently and with pride will see its people come together and be more united.

Moaz Nair is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.