Monday, January 26, 2004

The Language Divide

The Language Divide

I have to be back again in Jakarta tomorrow to tie up some loose ends. I have been trying to adapt myself to KL life since I've been back and was quite reluctant to yank myself away from the blissful isolation that enjoyed back in Jakarta; but I need to introduce new challenges into my life so that I continue to grow.

I'll take the opportunity this coming week there to meet up and say goodbye to some of my Indonesian friends--friends who have helped me a lot during my two years there. Those two years in a way had given me a brief reprieve from the hectic life that I used to lead in KL and Singapore. Though the pace of working life was slower in Jakarta, I was able to produce better quality work. For some reason I could build rapport a lot easier with Indonesian customers.

Even though I do not speak perfect Indonesian, strangely I find it easier to converse with the older generation in Indonesia while I struggle to do the same in Malaysia, especially with the elderly who not speak English. My Mandarin is utterly hopeless and my Cantonese--which is actually my mother-tongue--has deteriorated over the years through neglect and indifference.

In casual conversations, we also tend to lapse into our pidgin form of English or "Manglish". It is rather unfortunate that Malay--for centuries, the lingua franca for commerce in this region--is hardly ever used in the business world in Malaysia. Even native Malay speakers tend to sprinkle too many English words in their conversations--sometimes rather unnecessarily. Though I used to speak Malay a lot during my schooldays, over the years, I've somehow lost my flair for the language.

In fact I think my Malay has become even worst (at least from a Malaysian point of view) now that I've acquired some Indonesian habits of speaking: for example saying "nggak" instead of "tak", "kapan" instead of "bila", "gimana" (bagaimana), "makasi" (terima kasih), "udah" (dah or sudah) and using "gitu" (begitu) to emphasize a point at the end my sentence. Expressions such as "dong", "deh", "kok" and "sih" would also stump most Malaysians. Though historically both languages share a common root, there are many significant differences indeed between Bahasa Indonesia and the Bahasa Melayu that is spoken in Malaysia.

I'm forced to come to the rather disturbing conclusion that I actually do not speak any language well. Maybe the mixing of different languages in daily conversations is a natural and inevitable phenomenon. New languages emerge that way. Technology too--like SMS--influences the development of language--not sure for better or worse. I have to admit that I have to struggle to understand the heavily abbreviated text messages that fly across chat-rooms. Parents often lament the fact that they can never communicate with their teenagers anymore. Now with SMS-speak, parents not only have to overcome the generation gap but they actually have to learn an almost entirely new language if they even hope to penetrate their world.

Sometimes I do wonder, with the advanced communication devices that we possess today, are we really communicating better with one another? Perhaps technology has merely accelerated the splintering of our communities by facilitating the evolution of exclusive languages for ever-smaller sub-culture groups?

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