It takes commitment to preserve a language

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Malaysia’s indigenous language, Bidayuh, is being used less and less and it will take a concerted effort to ensure that competing languages ​​do not cause its demise.

Bidayuh, a language spoken by residents of Sarawak state in East Malaysia, is at risk of disappearing outside its traditional heartland.

The ethnically diverse Sarawak is home to over 26 indigenous groups and 47 language varieties, and while some of these languages ​​remain popular, Bidayuh is in decline. Researchers set out to find out why.

The Bidayuhs, often called Land Dayak, that is to say people of the land, are the second indigenous ethnic group in the region, behind the Iban. And while the Iban make up almost 30% of Sarawak’s population, the Bidayuh only make up 7.7%.

Malay and English already compete with the Bidayuh language, and as intermarriage grows in the region, the Iban and Sarawak Malay dialects are proving more attractive and dominant means of communication.

Government agencies and non-governmental organizations in Malaysia support the maintenance of indigenous languages, thereby helping to preserve customary laws and culture. But the researchers found that even among the Bidayuh, maintaining the vitality of their language tends to be attributed to others rather than to oneself.

The increase in intermarriage in Malaysia means that there is an increasing number of children with partial Bidayuh parentage and this does not seem to promote greater use of the language.

An ongoing study from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak of 467 Bidayuh found that 67% spoke Bidayuh almost every day, but 11% did not speak the language at all during the week.

When asked how to help preserve the language, only 56% thought speaking it at home was the way to go. Almost half of the participants felt that community activities, media broadcasts, printed materials and education were the best revitalization initiatives.

For the Bidayuh community in Sarawak, the diversity of dialects is also a challenge. Even some Bidayuh couples may not be able to speak Bidayuh with each other or with their children due to the mutual unintelligibility of Bidayuh dialects, which affects the intergenerational transmission of the Bidayuh language.

The Bidayuh language is the number one identity marker but the language is not the alpha and omega of the Bidayuh culture. Bidayuh couples living in cosmopolitan centers compensate for the displacement of the Bidayuh language by anchoring their children in the Bidayuh culture (e.g. Gawai or the harvest festival), living among the Bidayuh, eating Bidayuh food and making frequent visits to the village where their grandparents live.

Teaching the language at school may seem like an obvious solution, already the case for Iban and Kadazandusun, the latter having taught for the first time in primary school in 1997 and secondary school in 2006.

But in the case of Bidayuh, the work of standardization and development of an orthography has been hampered by the great dialectal variations. Even in the mother tongue teaching program initiated by Dayak Bidayuh National Association (DBNA) and SIL International and implemented in some kindergartens and preschools, teachers sometimes used their own spelling as they speak a Bidayuh dialect different from that of the teaching material. There are tensions over whether the standard Bidayuh language should include elements drawn from various dialects or be based on the Biatah, which is the larger group and somewhat easier to speak.

One preservation option could be to glamorize speaking Bidayuh, emulating successful efforts to preserve languages ​​in Singapore and Ecuador.

Descriptions of the Bidayuh language in glowing terms through songs, speeches, printed materials and the media could enhance the image of Bidayuh and build pride in the language. If social elites, influential and politically powerful people among the Bidayuh were to speak the language to their children and grandchildren, it could serve as a benchmark for the community to follow.

(360info.org: by Ting Su Hie, University Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS)

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