EJtaps: Don’t Be Afraid Of Culture

June 29, 2015

Language has been long associated with culture, like it or not. I’m not even talking about it academically here.The most evident I think is when you see people going about saying English being “bahasa penjajah”, the language of the colonizers. Because culturally and historically it has been used by the colonizers of our past. Honestly I understand the sentiment, and I rarely have a problem with people labelling the language as such however it becomes a problem when that kind of thinking limits your view of the world.

Like the identity people sometimes impose on the English language, you should be proud of the identity you have for your mother tongue. For many of us, (me included) that’s Malay. I have long advocated that learning another language will not corrode your mother tongue. In fact, I think learning another language can improve how your mother tongue develops.

The way I see it, learning another language will only expand the development of your own language. Language is not just words and punctuation. With language, in my opinion, comes three things: ideas, history and culture. If you visit the The Malaysian National Institute of Translation’s webpage on training, you will see that they will teach cultural implications of language because that’s how important culture is in language.

Language cannot exist in a vacuum, there’s a reason why different language develops differently – the culture.

Certain things are less talked about in one language but might be commonplace or even fundamental in another. The best example I can think of is the word “human rights”, you see a stark contrast of the narrative of human rights when you talk about it in different languages.

“Hak asasi manusia” in Malay sounds grand and sometimes scary, but that’s just because we didn’t join in the conversation much when all this was developing in other parts of the world. That’s why we need people who are well versed in many fields of knowledge (including language).

An exchange of idea can occur when you can understand more things in another language and when these ideas are talked about in your original language, it can expand even more, through a hyperlocal cultural lense instead of downright rejecting the idea even before knowing what it is.

Imagine that. We can bring new ideas into our culture if we are fluent in another language – that way we can enrich our culture without actually travelling far. We just need their books.

If you are afraid of other cultures invading your own, that should be the exact reason why you should learn another language as you cannot resist a takeover you do not understand. Don’t be afraid of exchange, during the early middle ages, Islamic scholars coveted the works of ancient Greeks – the writings of Aristotle,  Plato, were all translated so the ideas can be brought into the culture then.

I still speak Malay around 80% of the time. It helps me when I want to interact with my neighbours, the mak cik who sells kuih near my house, but English is still important in the world we live in today because like it or not has become the language of information.

We’ll talk about how English is important in other areas of life but for now, remember to never be afraid of an exchange of culture – we can influence it as much as much as it can influence us.

The important thing is to first be courageous.