When I was growing up in Kuching (Malaysia), I studied in a Chinese high school – Kuching High. This meant that the major language spoken among students was Mandarin, or occasionally Hokkien. We hardly ever spoke English or Bahasa Malaysia, unless it was in class or to teachers. This is the same in any Chinese kopitiam, shop or stall. People will assume that you speak Mandarin or Hokkien if you were Chinese and in Kuching.
However, this assumption is, quite frankly, a bit ridiculous. I know heaps of ethnically Chinese people who can’t hold a conversation in Mandarin or Hokkien. Friends of mine who went to St Theresa’s or St Joseph’s (and heaps of other non-Chinese schools, mind you), spoke English or Bahasa Sarawak in school.
So what happens when the social circles cross over? From personal experience, we speak English.
I was thinking about this common phenomena in terms of language death that’s occurring across the world, and I was struck by a sudden sense of panic.
When I go home, what if no one spoke Hokkien anymore?
What if no one spoke Bahasa Sarawak anymore?
What if, in 50 years, when my children are growing up, they never get to hear people shouting across kopitiams in different languages?
And it feels like a piece of me is being ripped away. I am not me without the languages I’ve been exposed to. I can’t describe taking a nap equivalent of a shower in the hot afternoon other than using the words “ma leong“. I don’t know how to do a proper toast at a wedding other than yamseng-ing my lungs out. There are only two ways I know to greet my friends when I become an adult: Jia ba boi? and/or Ho bo ho?
And yet, I know that I have already lost languages I have never spoken. My grandparents speak Hakka to each other, speak Hokkien to their children and speak English to their grandchildren. In my generation, my cousins, my sister and I can’t speak Hokkien fluently, and can barely understand Hakka. We just speak English.
Now imagine this happening across an entire generation, across an entire town, across an entire country. If languages were the verbal expression of the soul, if each language represented a different view of this world, then the loss that comes with valuing English above any other language is insurmountable.
95% of the world speak 4% of the world’s languages. In reverse, that means that 96% of ALL languages are only spoken by 5% of the world’s population. If we all spoke English, would we ever be able to describe the feeling of that stubborn longing in one word? Would we ever be able to make a date quite as efficiently as asking someone if they’ve eaten? Would we ever be able to feel what our ancestors felt, through their words?