By: Dr. Hanaa Naji Saleh Samaha
“All of you are fortunate,” I said to them in my Language Acquisition class recently, at the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics, Universiti Malaya.
A hand quickly shot up: “Why is that?”
And the rest of the class on that day turns into a cultural sharing session between us. It was fun, and I was captivated that day to find out that each student possessed proficiency in at least two languages apart from their mother tongue. What a breath-taking mindset of lifelong learning they have!
You see, I came from Yemen, a monolingual country. It’s monolingual because we are also a monocultural country. We are all Arabs, so everyone speaks Arabic. In fact, our neighbouring countries speak the same language too. Thus, we exhibit a high degree of homogeneity as we share the same language, same culture, same identity, same race, and (almost) the same religion.
It amazed me when I first set foot in Malaysia in 2017: people were not just ethnically different, but they spoke different languages too. While some do speak other languages, and some don’t; yet they all live harmoniously in the same country. This strange phenomenon quickly turns into admiration.
The country’s history may not be smooth sailing between the different ethnicities, but overall, this country has enjoyed harmony for most of its history. Malaysia’s ethnic and cultural diversity has definitely contributed to its vibrant and dynamic society. People in Malaysia could navigate through daily life seamlessly, weaving threads of language proficiency into the fabric of their culture and identity. This proficiency allows them to communicate easily and effectively, both verbally and nonverbally, across ethnic and cultural boundaries, breaking down linguistic barriers and promoting intercultural dialogue.
Such a colourful linguistic landscape is absent in my country and is replaced by complete homogeneity. As a result, people find it challenging to communicate with others who speak other languages. Moreover, they usually miss out on job opportunities that require language proficiency. In some cases, they may feel left out, as they may struggle to participate in conversations or activities conducted in languages they don’t understand. Since they depend on others’ translations, they usually lack a deep understanding and access to different cultures.
That is why Malaysians need to feel lucky because they don’t have to face the same challenges that monocultural individuals face, especially when going abroad. Multilingualism allows them to access information from various sources and communicate with a broader range of people, both locally and globally. Malaysians are really privileged to live in a society where multilingualism is not a challenge but a source of pride and strength. Switching effortlessly between languages enables them to transmit their rich heritage beyond their national borders and access a wider range of literature, music, films, and other forms of artistic expression.
Dear Malaysians, keep on learning new languages because you are adept at that. In this globalized world, language and culture are closely intertwined, and the world is becoming more and more
interconnected via technology. This multilingualism should become your strength to develop outstanding personal growth and fight for a better future.
And now I know what to ask in my next class: “How about we learn Arabic today to add to your arsenal of weapons to face the future?
The author is a Lecturer at the Department of English Language, Faculty of Languages and Linguistics, Universiti Malaya. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org