Musing on the meaning of a Malay proverb, Amy Hamizah asks whether the use of English in Brunei is a form of cultural imperialism or simply a marker of the educated younger generation.
‘Languages’, in Malay, ‘bahasa’, derived from the Sanskrit word ‘bhasa’. This word has many layers. A Malay proverb, “bahasa menunjukkan bangsa”, loosely translates to “language shows one’s ethnicity” and metaphorically to “language shows one’s culture/cultural identity”.
As I pondered over the meaning of this deep Malay proverb, I thought about the languages I use in everyday communication amongst my family in Brunei. Brunei Malay with my parents and younger brother; Brunei Malay with the aunties, uncles and cousins. Frequent code-switching of Brunei Malay and English with my cousins’ teenage children. Mostly English with my cousins’ younger children.
As the family continues to grow and the next generation is younger, the more English (and the less Malay) is used as a means of communication. What does this mean? This means English has penetrated deep within the family and I don’t have to be in England to speak English all the time. I just need to spend time with my cousin’s children and my friends. (I was informed by one Bruneian academic that English is the lingua franca for Brunei’s intellectual bourgeoisie, composed of university-educated individuals who may have been educated in the UK or Australia, or have had close relatives who were. They often speak English on a regular basis because of their educational background, with minimal code-switching – the same way that my circle of friends in Brunei communicate).
I’m aware that I am 5000 miles away from England, yet I still speak English most of the time. Going back to the Malay proverb shared earlier, on one’s language showing one’s culture, I have to ask: does speaking Brunei Malay less and less mean a gradual loss of the Brunei Malay culture/cultural identity? Is this one form of cultural imperialism?
It’s a complicated question that is difficult to answer, and when it comes to the next generation, things are even more complicated. My nine-year-old niece speaks to me in English only, but her favourite songs to sing on the karaoke are 1960s Malay P Ramlee songs. She still has to speak Brunei Malay to her great-grandmother, who does not speak English. She is still “anak Melayu Brunei” (a Brunei Malay child), despite her preferred language choice. This is certainly a change from when I was nine years old, when I was encouraged to speak Brunei Malay at home and English only in school. This relegation of English, to the space outside the home, continued until today.
Do I feel a sense of loss with the lessening of Brunei Malay in conversations with my nieces and nephews? Not really, as they are still able to speak and understand Brunei Malay and, like them, I grew up speaking both. My parents speak Brunei Malay as a second language, and while I have limited fluency in my mum’s first language (Sarawak – a regional language in Borneo), I have no fluency in my dad’s first language (Dusun – a regional language in Brunei). And so I feel more of a sense of loss whenever I remember my paternal grandmother, whose first language was not Brunei Malay and yet she spoke to me in this tongue. This feeling was one of the impetuses for me to learn Sarawak, so that I could at least communicate with my uncles and aunts on my mother’s side who cannot speak Brunei Malay. I suppose it was a success to a certain extent, as one of my uncles said I had not forgotten my roots when I was able to adequately communicate with them in Sarawak, and I felt a sense of relief that I was able to talk to them. Granted, my accent was wrong (I was told that my accent is more Iban than Sarawak), but to see their lit faces when my aunt said, “Amy pandey kelakar kitak” (Amy knows how to speak Sarawak) to her siblings, was priceless.
Even when we do talk in English, my friends and I add random Brunei Malay words here and there in our conversations. For example, sometimes we say “bah” instead of “okay”, as it’s more economical to use words with fewer syllables. Our code-switching is very rapid and natural. We will be speaking in English and a Malay word comes up when we cannot find an English one to adequately express what we want to say. This seamless integration of English and Malay in conversation is not unique to my circle of friends in Brunei; I also do it with friends from Singapore and Malaysia back in Cambridge. Once, a Japanese friend in Cambridge found himself lost in the middle of the conversation when his two lunch companions suddenly started speaking what was, to him, a foreign language in the middle of an English sentence. He told us that he “understood us, and then didn’t understand us, and then understood us again”. Do we enjoy code-switching? We do it so often that we don’t notice it. Indeed, if our Japanese friend hadn’t commented on it, we wouldn’t have been aware that we were code-switching in that instance. “Enjoy” perhaps doesn’t come into it – it’s more of a natural way for us to speak.
What is unique amongst the Bruneians, I think, is our habit of adding English suffixes to Malay words, when the word is not easily translatable to English. When I asked my friends on Instagram to translate “berabis” to me, only two attempted to do so: one said it meant “really” and the other “seriously”. While both translations are not wrong, the word can also mean “go all out”, or “go big or go home”. Hence why we prefer to just use “berabis” and then suffix it up with a -ly for extra emphasis and perhaps, for extra intimacy.
Dr Khairudien Al-Junied, a Singaporean Malay academic, once said that the Malays are unique in that that they willingly absorb outsiders who are willing to embrace the Malay culture. I wonder whether this culture of absorption also applies to the Brunei Malay-English fusion language that is spoken by Brunei’s intellectual bourgeoisie, who also happen to be composed of the university-educated upper and middle-class Bruneians. If it does, then the penetration of the English language amongst my family and those in my circle is exemplary of this phenomenon. Yet I still grapple with another concept. How do I decouple it from the notion of colonial hangover?
My experience as a tourist in continental Europe (Amsterdam being the exception to this rule) was that everyone spoke to me in their language first, before switching to English when I ask “Parlez vous Anglais?” (My French is “un petit”); or when my friends who speak the language quickly interceded on my behalf. This, I feel, showed their pride in their language. In contrast, when I first came back to Brunei, I found it slightly annoying when restaurant servers, clearly Brunei Malay in ethnicity, spoke to me in American-accented English. I even decided to boycott one restaurant after one of their Brunei Malay servers asked her Philippino manager to assist me when I used a Brunei Malay word, instead of the English word “what”, to ask about the soup of the day. My thought then was, “if I want to be served in English, I might as well stay in England”. Why did the server not speak in Brunei Malay? Did they think that Brunei Malay is inferior to English? Was this inferiority internalised? If it is, this is a sign of colonial hangover, that we speak a foreign language on our own soil, to our own people.
I also refuse to listen to the English spoken on Bruneian radio stations, after hearing a thick (clearly forced) American accent on the radio in my friend’s car. I don’t mind that the DJ spoke in English, it was an English segment anyway. However, I do mind that the DJ forced an American accent, instead of speaking English in the “natural” (Bruneian) accent. If “bahasa” (language) really does “menunjukkan bangsa” (indicates one’s ethnicity), what really is our ethnic or our cultural identity? We are not English, nor are we Americans. We can never be English nor American, even if we adopt the accent.
I recently asked a friend if she speaks in Malay exclusively to her child or code-switches to English. She told me that both she and her husband speak to her child in three languages (Brunei Malay, English and Dusun) to make sure that the child can communicate with the older generation and the language does not die. Perhaps this is one reason why a lot of Brunei’s intellectual bourgeouisie have started to speak Brunei Malay (and/or any of the regional languages), even if it’s only a tiny bit. For myself, I am now more aware of the notions of linguistic imperialism, and hence, try my best to speak in Brunei Malay with my fellow Bruneians (who can speak Brunei Malay) as much as possible. And I keep returning to the proverb. Does language really show one’s ethnicity? I still don’t know. The Malay proverb is indeed very deep.
About Amy Hamizah
Amy Hamizah Heidi is a researcher based in Brunei. A coffee addict/snob, she moonlights as a writer/blogger when a thought (on something that’s not related to her current research) comes into her head. She blogs about her experiences in Academia (as well being a domestic third culture kid) in Cambridge where she completed a PhD in Education at Lucy Cavendish. You can read her blog here: reflectivejourneys.wordpress.com and follow Amy on Twitter @AmyHeidi
This piece was commissioned for Life in Languages, a series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Saskia Vogel, Leïla Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes, Guest Editor of Life in Languages
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Feature image credit: lechatnoir