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Thursday, April 07, 2005

12] Celebrate Our Language Differences

Celebrate our language differences
by Azly Rahman
Apr 4, 05 12:54pm


I have been reflecting upon the language problematique as it relates to the debate on Malaysian vernacular schools. I arrived at a few thoughts.

Like the difference between truth with a small ‘t’ and truth with a capital T, the same goes with ‘culture’ and ‘Culture’. Frequently, dialogues on Malaysian culture revolve around our attempt to move from the small to the big ‘c’.

We argue endlessly over which Malaysian culture is more superior or which should be made official, or whose language should form the basis of our educational policy, or even whether it is suitable to officially have interfaith dialogue (a form of dialogue rooted in language and culture).

When I was in Sekolah Temenggong Abdul Rahman primary school in Johor Bahru, there were mantras in the still unsophisticated media that conditioned us to value the beauty of cultures.

Two of that I can still remember are Bahasa Jiwa Bangsa and Muhibbah. If I recall, part of the lyrics of Muhibbah goes like this:

Muhibbah, muhibbah
Itu lah amalan kita semua
Muhibbah, muhibbah,
Sejak sedari zaman purba kala
Tunaikan lah ikrar
Satu nusa satu bangsa merdeka
Satu …[can’t remember this] … satu suara
Dalam Malaysia jaya

What revolutionary lyrics on the need to homogenise the nation! As a child roaming around Kampung Melayu Majidee in my worn-out Japanese slippers, I would hum the lyrics. It was like a mantra. What a powerful mind conditioner!

In that song, I think the most revolutionary claim was that national unity has existed since time immemorial (sejak zaman purba kala)

Many decades later, every time I teach Foundations of Western Civilisation and delve into the discussion of the civilisations of the Ancients - the Sumerians, the Greeks, the Romans among these - I contemplate not only on the ethical and peaceful themes that exist in those civilisations despite their warmongering tendencies, but also engage my students in the discussion of cultural synthesis in the ‘globalisd’ ancient world.

For some time in the past, my research interest wason the kingdom of Srivijaya and the transcultural flow of the Hindu-Buddhist doctrine of work, play, and worship amongst the cultures of Southeast Asia.

How interesting to note that words like anugeraha, dosa, pahala, durjana, sembahyang, puja, mentera, takhta, singahsana, putra, jaya, warna, panca indera, budhi, bakhti, dharma, ashrama, shakti, sengsara, pujangga, seloka, tapa and many others the Malays use to define themselves spiritually and to describe practices of self-discipline are borrowed from the Hindu-Buddhist tradition.

These were borrowed through the transmission of the texts of the ancient Javanese traditions that are transmitted through the oral tradition of among others, the indigenised plays of Ramayana and Mahabharatha.

How beautiful are the cultures! How equally beautiful if we were preserve them through the celebration of human languages. How important the role of schooling and education in the building of the ethical foundations of civilisation.

What would our world be like if all our teachers take the effort to understand how important the first language is to the child in his/her early years of school? What would it be like to celebrate the child’s gift of language and to continue to help him/her develop it so that the child’s interest may be further sparked to learn other languages?

It is equally important for our politicians to also send this message of celebration so that we may design schools around this idea of multi-vocalities.

Culture and imagination

Imagine a scenario in Malaysian classrooms where primary school children learn the meaning of the word ‘peace’ and muhibbah in many different languages: Bahasa Melayu, Bahasa Jawa, Siam, Bugis, Bawean, Bangladeshi, Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, Tamil, Urdu, Tagalog, Hebrew, Arabic, Senoi, Jakun, Iban, and Kadazan-dusun.

Imagine the children, in weekly language word-study circles, explaining to each other the meaning of the word in their own language.

Imagine the children learning Language Arts and Social Studies exploring the interdisciplinary theme of the language they use at home.

Imagine them translating proverbs from their native language into English, and next illustrating them and next doing class presentations.

Imagine at the end of the year, the children and their parents proudly dressed up in their cultural outfits, singing songs in their native language without being laughed at, sharing food - in a cultural celebration night.

Imagine secondary school students doing their final school project on the meaning of their cultural practices and the relationship to their ethical belief system and how each may teach them to profess universal values of peace and social justice among different races.

Imagine all of them doing a project that analyses the themes of famous cross-cultural movies and using this vehicle to learn the concepts of cultural preservation and continuity.

Imagine, at the community college and university level, when theyhave had enough exposure and appreciation to linguistic and cultural diversity, Malaysians forming cross-cultural dialogues clubs, engaging in multiple literacies and multiple voices fora, interfaith circles of learning, transcultural network of friends and other innovations in multi-cultural social imaginations - so that we may not need communalism anymore as a basis for our national political design.

Imagine, we then have graduate students forming something called ‘Malaysian Transcultural Social Democratic Futuristics’ political study groups to dismantle all existing parties that have served their time.

What an exploration in a newer human design we may embark upon to create a society based on a transcultural radical-multiculturalist utopianism. It would be a good experiment we may embark upon for the next 50 years so that we may redefine the meaning of ‘progress and development’, rethink the solution to corruption, and reconfigure the existing and incoming newer Malaysians.

But let us go back to the present Malaysian classroom.

Imagine how the classroom, although confined by the four walls, is a world in itself in which children learn to construct the meaning of the world they live in. Imagine, like the ex-Beatle John Lennon once said, “… a brotherhood of Man”.

Like Lennon, I do not think we are all dreamers. I do not think we’re the only ones. This is the day we ought to start joining this dialogue to start thinking of the enabling dimensions of our culture.

We have been waiting at the crossroad of this debate too long that we have not been able to do the ‘border-crossing’.

Our politicians have been giving us the wrong interpretation of what language, culture, and human liberation actually means. Even our most progressive educators have fallen prey to these shackling arguments that have chained us to the ‘stop’ sign of the crossing that will bring us to this world of imagination and possibilities. Our politicians are not linguists.

We must learn to explore and develop our interest in other languages to make our world a more creative and more enriched place, culturally and linguistically. Malaysia is the such fertile area of such exploration.

Cultural trap

Our current squabble over what official language to use in primary schools has philosophical solutions. We think it is a political problem with political solutions. We are wrong. We are looking at it the wrong way.

Albert Einstein once said the problem cannot be solved if it originates from the same plane from which it arises. We have to find the light at the end of the tunnel. We have to rethink what cultural dominance mean.

Can one value be allowed to define other values? Can one culture be allowed to dominate?

There is no dominance of one value over others; if one feels that there ought to be, then the definition must be an arrogant and outdated one.

Cultural absolutism itself is subjective; all cultures want to define their culture as the absolute - the absolute truth.

This has been the problem of humanity since time immemorial; sejak zaman purba kala.

To acknowledge one's culture as being superior to others' is like acknowledging that one's race is superior to others. There is no biological basis to racial superiority. Race/culture is a construct; it exists in the mind. Race can translate into social domination.

Cultural relativism is currently being rigorously explored the world over through disciplines such as Ethnic and Multi-cultural Studies. This is a promising field that might reduce bigotry based on race, religion or skin colour.

Relativism simply means there is no absolute. It is time we embrace this notion that things are relative. We may even open up minds to exploring transcultural philosophies and have less fights over which race is more intelligent that the other.

Let me propose the following notion of language and culture.

Language is culture is philosophy is reality is the totality of one’s existence shaped by the economic conditions that are shaped by dominant others. As makers of our own history and masters of our own destiny, with the aid of divine intervention, we ought to learn how to explore the inter-relationship between power and language.

As existential beings we are going through, as stated by Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan, stages of “evolving selfs”. We ought to ask: in what way is language used to indoctrinate and oppress us and in what way must we continue to be aware of this and remain conscious and free?

As thinking, feeling, and dignified beings in this sea of humanity, how do we recognise whose language is trying to colonise and oppress ours? How is structural, or unseen violence, defining the way we communicate?

As ‘novice linguistic archaeologists’, how do we excavate language in its cultural field so that we may then discover the ‘ethics of authenticity’ and ultimately stand in awe facing the core of its philosophy? These are tough questions.

Let me illustrate the beauty of this archaeological exploration. Imagine our university students, in a class called ‘Cross-Cultural Perspectives’ exploring the grand narratives of the major cultural traditions to understand how language and culture flows.

Cultural flow

To celebrate and help preserve the diversity of languages, we need to first understand how language and culture get transmitted. I present an ‘Essentialist’ perspective; one that sees culture being passed down from one generation to the next.

According to this perspective, the core culture would remain intact, passed down as highly coded information. The level of creativity in interpretation of the values of the core elements may be guarded by the senior members of the society in order for cultural tradition to remain preserved. The major texts are called grand narratives.

Let us further illustrate what grand narratives are used for. The cultural flow and the transmission of traditions might be in the case of the teachings of the great books of world’s religious and philosophical traditions such as Ramayana, Mahabharatha, the Vedas, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita to the Hindus, the I Ching, Tao Te Ching, and the Analects from Chinese philosophers to generations of Chinese, or the Al Quran and the Hadith and Al Ghazalli’s Ihya al-Ulumuddin, or the Granth Sahib, or the Lotus Sutras, or the Old and New Testament passed down to Christians.

All these represent knowledge/information designed to be passed down from generation to generation through a variety of media such as parables, drama, music, shadow plays, Japanese kabuki theatre and Noh drama.

Although the grand narratives above contain universal messages of human liberation, they ‘speak’ originally to distinct cultural groups. In the texts transmitted, the antagonists and protagonists, the crisis, conflict, climax, conclusions and moral lessons utilise specific cultural settings within their respective milieu.

Thus for example the Hindu texts are rich in magnificent imagery of ancient India, the Chinese grand narratives are written with pastoral ancient Chinese civilisations as backdrop, the Al Quran is revealed in the beauteous land of rolling hills of Arabic desert beauty, and the Bible are stories or parables set in the serene ancient land of Israel.

Herein lies the foundation of Malaysia’s cross-cultural civilisations. Add the grand narratives of the indigenous peoples to the list, and we have a beautiful tapestry of linguistic and cultural diversity.

How beautiful the study of language and culture can be. It is even more beautiful to a child learning about the authenticity of the human self in his/her mother tongue.

Why then do we need to make political statements accusing this and that group of being linguistic and cultural chauvinists?

Cultural contradictions

I am now humming the government-propaganda song Muhibbah. The last few verses I can still remember are:
Marilah kita berganding tangan
Hapuskan lah jurang perbezaan

Many decades hence, we have the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer.We have the upper class few smiling broader and many in the middle class becoming quieter.

We have few schools getting the most sophisticated computers, while the rest get crumbs of the Information Age.

We have children getting all As and being recognised for memorising and regurgitating more and more facts, while some get many Fs and drop out earlier in the new Malaysian rat race.

We have more intensified problems with national integration, while the children’s multi-cultural needs are being neglected in the few crucial formative years of their language and cognitive development.

We have more and more smart and tall buildings, but we continue to produce fewer and fewer people who can say Stop! to material progress and to focus more on human intellectual development and racial tolerance, and prioritise basic needs over insatiable wants.

We have more and more arguments over the possibility of interfaith commissions with a few initiative to help explore and encourage meaningful religious dialogues.
We have more and more leaders screaming, shouting, and scheming for democracy and reformasi, but we have fewer and fewer people understanding why we must create even newer and better alternatives to this.

Constructive paths

Let us then think of newer ways to resolve the contradictions of homogeneity and heterogeneity, between the need to think as one and the necessity of respecting voices of the many.

Let us, politicians and educators alike, construct newer ways of ending squabbles and start exploring newer pastures in language and culture, building from the promising existing condition.

Politicians, let us:
- Learn the complexity of language and nation-building.
- Look at language as a gift not a Trojan horse.
- Stop making statements on language and schooling that confuse and anger people.
- Seek advice from the progressive and humanistic linguists.
- Help the media highlight the beauty of human expressions through the languages.
- Collaborate with the new radical multi-culturalism that is emerging through the new voices.
- Stop making references to this and that superiority in language.
- Seek avenues for problem-solving in education that will help children enrich and explore their inner world through the language they grow up in; as a preparation to learn other languages.
- Teach citizens to deal with the ‘imperialistic’ onslaught of the corporate English language.
- Learn to deconstruct the meaning of language and symbolic power.

Educators, let us:
- Educate ourselves on the beauty of all languages.- Look at the child as a ‘teacher’ who will teach us his/her language.
- Help children preserve their native language.
- Teach them to take pride in the language of their inner world.
- Enrich our children through cross-cultural perspectives of teaching.
- Draw out the ethical and social dimensions.
- Perceive and conceive it as a chariot to intellectual and cognitive development.
- Use it to combat linguistic and social dominance.
- Teach peaceful conflict resolution through language.
- Design trans-disciplinary connections in classroom learning.

Let us help our children develop all the possibilities of cultural imagination through the celebration and nurturance of the language they speak; to see the differences as anugeraha and not as a path to our nation’s future sengsara.

Let us also be reminded by the sage Mahatma Gandhi who once said: “I want all the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”

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