The Trap of Monolingualism

M. Bakri Musa
27th Nov 2017

Language is not only a means of communication but also an instrument through which we look at the world. Fluency in a foreign language gives us another instrument to view reality, the equivalent of shining the light from a different angle and giving us a fresh perspective. While we have come a long way from the earlier brash assertion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language controls our thoughts, nonetheless the way we look at reality is conditioned by the habits and attributes of our mother tongue.

When hunting with an Australian aborigine, telling him that there is a kangaroo on the left would not be terribly helpful as he would first have to figure out whether you are referring to his or your left, a critical differentiation. It would be more meaningful and less chance of your being struck by a stray bullet if you were to say that the critter is to the west or east. Those Australian natives are more adept with cardinal signs. Out in the arid barren plains of the continent’s interior, there are few terrestrial landmarks to make meaningful references to left or right.

In their book In Other Words: The Science and Psychology of Second-Language Acquisition, Ellen Bialystok and Kenji Hakuta suggest that the benefits of being bilingual go beyond knowing two languages. As the structures and ideas of languages are different, a child has to think in more complex ways than if he were to know only one language. That increases “meta-linguistic awareness,” a greater sensitivity to language in general and awareness of its meaning and structure.

This heightened sensitivity transfers to other areas, as with the ability to extract core ideas from extraneous information, or to use the language of engineers, enhancing the signal-to-noise ratio. This is a useful and critical analytical skill. When you are bilingual you grasp concepts or core facts quickly; you are not easily distracted by the language or presentation.

Studies with f MRI show that the bilingual brain is also more efficient, at least with respect to translations. Those bilingual from an early age do not go through the mental process of translating, rather they grasp the concept right away and then express it in the other language, skipping the translating step.

Consider those familiar with only the imperial system. When told that it is 20 degrees Centigrade outside, they first have to convert that into Fahrenheit (68F) and only then could surmise that it is pleasant. If they were facile with both systems, they would know right away that 20 degrees Centigrade is quite pleasant, while 35, uncomfortably hot.

It does not matter what the second language is, the key point is to have another instrument to look at reality, another perspective. Malaysia’s plural population affords splendid opportunities to learn another language. Homogenous societies like Japan are handicapped in this respect. English is taught in Japanese schools right from kindergarten, yet the average Japanese student has difficulty communicating in English.

Perversely, Malay language nationalists use Japan as an example for resisting the teaching of English. Japan is an economic and technological powerhouse despite its students not being fluent in English, those language nationalists argue. That is a gross misreading of the Japanese situation. Japanese leaders are very much aware how much of a handicap their students face and are aggressively remedying the situation by recruiting thousands of native English-speaking teachers from abroad, as is China today.

English fluency in itself is no magic bullet. India and the Philippines would shatter that illusion. Not knowing English however, is a major handicap.

The most advantaged in this globalized world are those who are bilingual, with one of the languages being English. American students are now required to learn a second language, in recognition of this reality. Second to that would be those who speak only one language, but that language is English. The least advantaged, or most handicapped, are those who speak only one language, and that language is other than English. That unfortunately is the fate of most Malays. Little wonder that we do not do well in commerce, education, and other endeavors.

In Malaysia, most non-Malays are already bilingual, their native tongue and Malay; many are also trilingual, with English. That gives them significant advantages in the marketplace and elsewhere. With their multiple-language skills they are able to view reality from many perspectives, giving them significant cognitive advantages. I attribute their success to this fact, not to any intrinsic superiority of their race or culture. You are not likely to succeed in Malaysia or anywhere else if all you know is Hokkien or Malayalam.

Malays have the capacity to be fluently bilingual (English and Malay), or even trilingual, with Arabic. Those who are unilingual are handicapping themselves and trapping their minds.
English fluency confers many significant advantages as it is the language of commerce and science. In science with only Malay you would never go beyond the elementary stuff. Then there is the Internet, which is predominantly English. To take full advantage of this digital universe you have to be fluent in English.

As to why English and not say, Chinese, has achieved this status, only Allah knows, as we Muslims would put it. After all, more people speak Mandarin. There are more people learning English in China than in the United Kingdom.

For Malays, there is an extra and important psychological benefit for knowing English. It has long been acknowledged as the language of the elite, the legacy of colonization. Being English-illiterate thus carried a certain stigma, implying that your world does not extend beyond the kampung. When Malays in Malaysia engage in conversations with each other, they do so in English. That sentiment of enhanced social status associated with English fluency is still entrenched today if not even stronger no matter how hard Malay nationalists try to portray it as otherwise. The fact remains; if you are illiterate in English you would be treated as being from the underclass, from the village. If people treat you like that, pretty soon you behave that way. That is the major psychological handicap facing Malays who are English-illiterate.

An oft-cited explanation for Malay backwardness is our lack of self-confidence. Our lack of English fluency contributes to this. Engaging our people in motivational speeches and rah rah rallies, or endlessly proclaiming the superiority of our language and culture would never boost the core confidence of our people. On the other hand, teach them English and make them comfortable and fluent in that language, then watch their confidence grow. This is especially true of the young.

Those who lack self-confidence react in one of two ways. One, they become brashly overconfident to the point of being obnoxious. They know it all. Do not bother them with facts or new insights; their minds are already made up and nothing could shake their confidence. Woe betides anyone unfortunate enough to work with, or especially, under them. Psychologists refer to this non-productive pattern of behavior as reaction formation.

The second way those who lack confidence react is by retreating to their comfort zone underneath the old familiar coconut shell. Regression, in the language of psychologists. They have no interest in anything beyond as they do not understand it and more significantly, they refuse to try. Their oft-cited excuse for retreating would be that that they are busy enough in their own immediate world, there is little need to venture beyond.

I noticed this with young doctors who were graduates of Indonesian universities when I worked in Malaysia in the 1970s. They may be keen on surgery initially but when they found the workload rough because of their limited English proficiency (my seminars and reading lists were in English), they would ask to be released because they were all of a sudden “no longer interested in surgery.” When I tried to arrange special English classes, they felt offended. They saw that as an insult, not assistance. What the Stanford psychologist Claude Steel referred to as self-affirmation threat.

Abroad, when Malays meet a fellow Malay, we converse in Malay. Part of the reason is of course that we long to hear our native tongue spoken. The other is that if you are in America you are obviously fluent in English, so that is no longer a useful differentiating social indicator.

Malay is the national language of Malaysia; all Malaysians must be fluent in it. You cannot consider yourself a true Malaysian otherwise. However, whether non- Malays are fluent in Malay is not my concern; nor is that pertinent to my discussion. My concern is with advancing Malays through liberating their minds. Knowing a second or even a third language is the quickest path towards that end.

  1. #1 by good coolie on Monday, 27 November 2017 - 11:32 am

    Even if you can’t be fluent in Malay, at least be as good as Nallakaruppan when he is about to go into a tirade against Anwar and Mahatir. Pasar Malay will do.

  2. #2 by SuperStringhg on Monday, 27 November 2017 - 12:41 pm

    True, when we see a Chinese or Indian speaks in Malay, we treat as normal but if we see a Malay speak in Indian or Chinese, we WoW and impressed by the linguistic ability. If this article is written by some UMNOs elite, I will surely be stupefied.
    Anyway, this article may be viewed as “Seditious” by the Nationalists….

  3. #3 by Justice Ipsofacto on Monday, 27 November 2017 - 10:14 pm

    Bakri Musa is wrong.

    It ain’t a trap. In fact there wasn’t any trap. Actually, the reality of the presence is inextricably embedded in multilingualism, multiculturalism and multiracialism.

    The topsy turvy that we see across the world are merely the workings of Nash Equilibrium where adjustments are being hammered out in search of a new equilibrium – a new world order.

  4. #4 by waterfrontcoolie on Sunday, 3 December 2017 - 10:40 am

    Musa has been trying his very best to tell the majority of Malaysians to wake up though personally, I think it will take another 3 generations to revert to the 60s of the last century. In spite of being a nation which spends the largest budget on education in this region, what is the result? Nothing to glow about. And in the 21st century STEM subjects have been deemed to decide the progress of any nation; what have we got? It would be interesting to note that the University of Songhkla had entered the final round of the international university computer competition last year when non of the Malaysian university did so. And here we thought we are already in the fore-front of E-Commerce by just announcing that we have allocated the land for those activities! It seems our education system is designed to maintain status quo for some people while the rest can jump into the quagmire! The sad thing is the Majority of the population is unable to think that they have had been ‘drowned’ in our system all these years; just like Obama demanded’ that every child should get a degree even if the paper is worth nothing more than the cost of the picture frame. We will definitely slide further down and will remain there as long as today’s policy is maintained!

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