Saturday, October 3, 2009

Chicken, egg and the national language

There is this classic of a slogan ' Bahasa Jiwa Bangsa', which can be roughly rendered in translation as ' Language the Soul of the Nation'. Its a classic of sort because it has been around for a long time, right from the time of the early years of the inception of our nation. It has been the battle cry of patriots, nationalists, leaders in establishing the foundation of our nation.

Indeed it contains much truth, for the national language does indeed represent one important aspect of national identity. Apart from it symbolic value, it is suppose to be also the medium of communication, interaction, socialisation and the cement bonding the people into a nation. In this respect, the national language is indeed 'the soul of the nation

The official or national status of a language is no guarantee of its richness and dynamism in national life. A good example perhaps would be the state of the Malay language in Singapore. Malay still enjoys the status of ' national language' . Despite this however, the language does not reflect it in terms of widespread usage and acceptance in national life. In reality Malay is only the living language for perhaps a section of the Malay community itself. Even the younger, university educated generations of the community are slowly but surely loosing the spontaneous, natural and eloquent use of it. The economic , psychological, social and emotional value towards it can safely be said to be dwindling.

It is only rarely that we find a young Malay holding his or her own in Malay beyond a few sentences in a conversation without mixing with English. What makes it worse is the psychological and emotional association of Malay with lower social economic status. Hence the tendency to demonstrate familiarity and eloquence with English, or even unfamiliarity with Malay, with higher self-esteem.

It has to be said though, while official or national status does not guarantee the dynamism or living status of a language, its absence, given other things being equal, would definitely kill a language, or at the very least stunts it. In Singapore, for instance, 'official' campaigns to promote the Malay language, the mother-tongue policy in the education system, or the continuing use of Malay for ceremonial purposes like military drill, help to keep the language afloat. By the way, the national anthem is still 'Majulah Singapura', though I doubt it is understood by too many Singaporeans!

Before a language can be the medium of our soul and the mover of our spirit, we have to love, cultivate, develop and enrich it. Infuse it with our spirit and to the full extent of our humanity and life experience, for only then can it be 'the soul of our nation'. In this respect then, isn't it equally true to say that ' Jiwa Bahasa Bangsa'? rendered roughly ' The Soul the Language of the Nation'? Regretfully, we Malaysians had been guilty of collectively rendering the national language souless, then making a much neglected national language 'the dead soul of a nation', to borrow a Gogolian expression.

So let us be mindful that while the national language is charged with the task of being the soul of our nation, our soul is very much a determinant of its richness and dynamism in fulfilling that all important role in our national life. is a bit of a chicken and egg problem!

This gives me a chance to digress a bit to revisit PPSMI. Well at the end of the day, it is not really the language that matters in moulding the scientific and logical thinking of our younger generation. It is more our curriculum, the quality of teaching that would prevail in the end. Be it bahasa Malaysia or English, like I say it is a matter of the spirit or soul.
If the curriculum and teaching, reflected in the medium of instruction, do not genuinely reflect and exude commitment to the scientific spirit and enquiry, we would certainly fail in our science and maths education. So, to bring the chicken and egg back, first infuse whatever the teaching medium is with the scientific spirit through an imaginative and creative curriculum, for only then can it perform the task of sending the scientific spirit of our young soaring!


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