Preservation of National Cultural Heritage via Mother Tongue

At first glance, language may seem just as a tool for communication. Yet, it encompasses more than just words and grammatical rules.

Language is crucial for preserving cultural and linguistic variety and plays a significant role in shaping one’s identity. Each nation’s cultural legacy includes its mother tongue.

The phrase “mother tongue” refers to the original or ancestral language of a certain ethnic group. The mother tongue has significance in the cultural framework of a group of people, regardless of its status as a significant language.

It is one of the primary mechanisms that enable a community to transmit its culture, including traditions, history, art, and rituals, from one generation to the next.

Language has always been a significant priority in the objectives of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The right to study and use one’s mother tongue is a fundamental human right established in the United Nations Declaration and the International Mother Tongue Day was officially acknowledged at the UNESCO General Conference in 1999.

It is observed annually on February 21 from the year after its inception to raise awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity.

February 21, 1952, also marks the deaths of four students in a linguistic dispute. Bangladeshi university students were slain by Pakistani police and army in Dhaka during the Bengali Language Movement.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the Governor-General of Pakistan, declared Urdu as the exclusive language for West Pakistan and East Pakistan on 21 March 1948. This upset the Bengali-speaking residents of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) who had long considered Bengali as their mother tongue.

A nation’s legacy may be best preserved and enhanced via the use of its mother tongue.

Utilizing the mother tongue promotes linguistic variety, multilingual education and fosters unification through understanding, tolerance and communication among different cultures worldwide.

The significance of conserving Malaysia’s national heritage, which is distinguished by its diverse population and multitude of languages, led to its first celebration of International Mother Tongue Day in 2003.

The Dong Jiao Zong Higher Education Center coordinated the celebration with several language organizations, such as the Malaysian Linguistic Association, the Malaysian Tamil Education Research and Development Foundation, the Kadazandusun Language Foundation and the Borneo Research Institute.

The significance of the native language as a cultural legacy

Each country’s mother tongue has distinct characteristics in customs, traditions, values and discipline throughout human history.

The mother tongue represents a nation’s heritage, culture, art and science and should be preserved and protected as such.

Malaysia is a diverse nation of several races and ethnic groups. The major ethnic groups of Malaysia are the Malays, Chinese and Indians, each with their own languages and dialects.

There are 18 distinct minority groups of Orang Asli tribes in Peninsular Malaysia, including Temiar, Jakun, Semang, and Mah Meri.

Sabah is home to about 30 tribes who speak at least 50 different languages and dialects, including Kadazan, Dusun and Malay Brunei.

Many tribes in Sarawak speak at least 32 languages including Iban, Bidayuh, Melanau and Orang Ulu. Altogether, there are 137 indigenous languages spoken in this nation.

The variety of languages spoken by the different ethnicities enriches the multicultural society of Malaysia.

Although all languages have a social purpose and are celebrated, in a multilingual society, some languages are prioritized over others. Conflicts may occasionally result in the preservation and adoption of a language.

Language shift is a compelling and inevitable linguistic occurrence, particularly among minority populations residing in nations with a bilingual policy favouring a dominant language.

The impact of language shift varies across different linguistic communities due to rapid industrialization.

Various variables that might influence language retention and shift include demographic, economical, sociopolitical, and social aspects such as education, marriage, migration, attitudes and values. Globalization and the information technology age also influence the use of the language.

Furthermore, other languages are vanishing daily as a result of the prevalence of some main languages in information outlets. Information sources include all mediums that provide data, including text, audio, video, pictures and other types of information.

If governments and the speaking communities do not take quick action, half of the 6,700 languages spoken worldwide now will vanish by the end of the century.

The UNESCO Endangered Languages Program coordinates global efforts to address these issues and provide creative solutions for communities, specialists and stakeholders.

Language is a potent representation of culture, and one’s mother tongue symbolizes their culture. It is crucial to retain one’s mother tongue while also embracing the variety of other mother tongues via learning.

This is to prevent the loss of distinctive possibilities, traditions, memories, modes of thinking and expression, as well as significant resources.

Language preservation may be sustained by the ongoing teaching and recognition of language as a vital element of cultural heritage within a nation.

Fishman, a linguist, proposed that the language-speaking community should endorse and implement language preservation efforts. Linguists may need to acknowledge that some populations may no longer preserve their historical languages.

Preserving the mother tongue in Malaysia

Historical evidence demonstrates that Malay has the potential to function as a lingua franca or intermediary language. During the peak of the Malacca Malay Sultanate, the Malay language was used by merchants from Arabia, China, India, and Europe.

During that period, Malay was seen as the language that promoted unity and served as a means of international communication. Approximately 300 million individuals worldwide are capable of speaking Malay.

The Malay language originates from the Austronesian language group, sometimes referred to as the Malay-Polynesian language. The Malay language evolved into many separate and unique dialects.

Currently, Malay serves as the official and national language of Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei. The Malay language is designated as the official language of Malaysia according to Article 152 of the Federal Constitution.

Despite Malay being the official language of Malaysia, efforts are made to preserve the community’s home tongue.

The preservation of the current native language requires strong backing from many stakeholders, particularly the government and the language-speaking communities.

If the mother tongue is seen as a significant representation of a community’s identity, particularly a minority group, then the speaker must maintain and protect the language.

Institutional support may often advocate for the language of this minority population. Education, law, government, religion, and media are crucial sectors that may maintain the usage of the mother tongue and warrant focus.

Our nation excels in retaining the mother language. Malaysia has long kept its native language before World Native Language Day was established. The primary focus is on the systematic and comprehensive preservation of the Chinese and Indian mother tongues for educational and communicative purposes.

Television ads in many languages might imply the need of preserving different ethnic languages for communication.

Furthermore, Malaysia is dedicated to conserving the indigenous language of the tribes. Three languages that are given particular focus and included in school curricula are Semai, Iban and Kadazandusun. In elementary school, 120 minutes a week are dedicated to teaching these three languages, which is done outside the regular curriculum.

The Language and Library Council (Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka – DBP) is responsible for the preservation of indigenous languages. DBP has been conducting a Tribal Language Vocabulary Study Project since 1985, while releasing tribal language textbooks.

DBP has released 15 lexicons for indigenous languages in Sabah. Two publications were released in 2005: “Sabah Tribal Language List: Bahasa Melayu – Murut Tahol Language” and “Sabah Tribal Language List: Malay Language – Bajau Sama Language.”

The advancement of information technology has heightened the importance of mother tongue in the realm of digital innovation. Creating and developing software, apps and internet resources in local languages promotes technological advancement and enhances access to information, education and services within communities.

It may also aid in employment creation and sustain competitiveness in the global digital economy.

The digital era has introduced additional obstacles for maintaining the survival of the mother tongue. Globalization and the prevalence of a limited number of major languages online may result in the decline of linguistic variety.

Moreover, the fast dissemination of information technology may exert stress on conventional languages and civilizations. Minimizing the use of the mother tongue may result in the erosion of linguistic legacy and cultural identity.

Malaysians should continue celebrating and making efforts to preserve their mother tongue, recognizing its significant value.

We should take pride in our mother tongue and maintain its usage alongside more prevalent languages for broader communication within our network. Our mother language represents the culture of our country, as the phrase goes, “Language is the Soul of Nation (Bahasa Jiwa Bangsa).”

Nelson Mandela famously said that effective communication occurs by speaking to someone in a language they understand, since it will resonate with their intellect. Speaking to someone in their own language might really resonate with them.

Preserve our nation’s mother tongue and endeavour to acquire the mother tongue of other groups in the country to foster unity and love among Malaysians.

Dr Sabariah Baharun
Central Committee Member 
Head of the National Unity Cluster 
Pertubuhan IKRAM Malaysia

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