The Language Enigma

It is estimated that there are more than 250 established language families in the world and over 6,800 distinct languages many of which are threatened or endangered. The diversity and origins of language is mystifying and remains curious. Language possibly defines us as humans and yet is also the divisive. George Bernard Shaw says that the United States and United Kingdom are “two countries divided by a common language”. Chinese is the official language of over 1.4 billion people and it is the most spoken language in the world. It can be described as a collection of over a billion idiolects scattered around the world, in Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore in particular. Primarily, there’s Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese. Malay has a variety of dialects. The phonetics and phonology of Canadian French differ significantly from those of the European language.

Image: Unsplash

Why is it we communicate in so many different ways? Although the ability to speak is universal, the language we learn to speak differ considerably. Our globetrotting ancestors spread out in vastly different directions and consequently had to respond productively to challenges they faced in foreign lands. In the study of methodology in teaching it’s known as the “immersion” of learning a language. They had to adapt to the various geographical and cultural groups inhabited.

Malaysians are fortunate to be multi-lingual or at least bilingual. Susan Ervin-Tripp of UCLA in her experiments on bilinguals wrote “The switch in language draws with it the cultural baggage associated with that language”. Language is a powerful thing which not only makes you see yourself differently, but also influence how you think of others. There is a definitive link to culture and heritage.

In some cases there are circumstances especially in inter-marriages, the first language or native tongue will eventually fade. Hypothetically, if James of Indian origin marries a Portuguese woman and they communicate in English which is a commonality and thereafter, their son marries a Chinese and communicates in English and Chinese the first language of James and his wife will cease to exist. The complexities of inter-marriage have far reaching consequences on the first language and culture.

The medium of instruction used in education has a significant impact on students. Being multi-lingual is favorable in terms of jobs, networking and acceptance in communities. The medium of instruction in Malaysia is Bahasa Malaysia with the exception of vernacular schools and English is a second language. Although English is taught in all schools there is a chronic imbalance in the level of proficiency. In the EF English Proficiency Index 2019, Malaysia was ranked 26th. and Singapore 5th (Malay Mail). While Mandarin is used by the largest number of people, English is the most widely used language in the world with regard to a second language. It is also known to be one of the easiest languages to learn.

We don’t have to be perfect, but reasonably proficient to express ourselves at the same level with our first language. We have our own variation of English fondly known as Manglish. It’s fine to use Manglish but it would be prudent to know when and where. The emphasis is the place and audience we are addressing. It would be inappropriate for an English teacher to instruct in Manglish during a lesson.

Will there ever be a single language one day? Unlike Mandarin, English dominates international relations, business and science. English is probably on course to be the planet’s lingua franca. Nevertheless, it may not necessarily be Standard English as millions of second-language English speakers have created dialects that incorporate elements of their native languages and cultures. This does not mean that other languages will vanish because people will continue speaking a language which is innate.

Chuck is a content writer under Headliner by Newswav, a programme where content creators get to tell their unique stories through articles and at the same time monetize their content within the Newswav app.
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Author: Chuck

Just a guy who enjoys reading and a dose of jazz everyday.