Three ways to encourage youths to go beyond mother-tongue comfort zones

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In the effort to cultivate ethnic sensitivity and inclusion among the young, we have to do our part and lead by example, says Kenneth Lee.

Recently, there have been calls over social media in Malaysia to refrain from speaking in one’s mother tongue in a mixed public or professional setting.

These calls have come at a time when divisive issues continue to plague multiracial Malaysia.

As a lecturer who has been serving in the education sector for the past 10 years, I have noticed this phenomenon isn’t something new; it has always been there, whether in a professional setting or in the classroom.

I have taught students of different ethnic backgrounds and witnessed how there will always be certain groups or individuals who find it a challenge to speak in a common language (other than their first language). It bothers me every time I come across those who are present but who do not understand the language being used and see the look on their faces change from puzzled to annoyed.

This article attempts to examine this issue from an educator’s perspective by looking into the possible causes and proposing what we can do to tackle the problem.

The calls on the internet have clearly spelled out the issue, which is underscored by the experiences of many netizens and commenters who can relate to it. For example, a user with the Twitter handle @14NKG posted “Daily struggle at uni. Its to the point they discuss final exam tips in their mother tongue then cherry pick what to give me.”

While I share the same sentiments as most of the netizens who commented, there is more to the issue than just what is taking place and simply calling for a stop to it.

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Firstly, from the experiences shared by most netizens, a lack of sensitivity is evident in the choice of an appropriate language in a public or professional setting. In my class, for instance, I have come across students who, despite being well-versed in one of the common languages, still decide to stick to their own language in the presence of others who do not understand it.

On top of that, through my conversations with some of my students over the years, I realise many individuals shy away from speaking in a language common to the larger group due to a fear of making mistakes or of being judged – just because they think they are not good at that common language. They would rather be an island and speak among their circle (their “in-group”) in their own mother tongue than interact in a shared language with others who are also present (the “out-group”).

Of course, many of these students probably attended vernacular schools and come from a family or social environment that is homogeneous in language and culture. As part of their in-group identity, they have mingled with people who share the same language as well as cultural and religious values.

As a result, they may find it difficult to tackle the relatively more heterogeneous settings at college or university and eventually in their professional life. Thus, in a knee-jerk reaction, they continue to speak in their own language and disregard others in mixed-group interactions – at the expense of racial integration.

As much as I believe our vernacular school system has had a hand in shaping this phenomenon leading up to what it is today, I am reluctant to delve into it as there are apparently two opposing views and to discuss it would mean a never-ending debate.

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Rather, I would like to propose the following actions for educators and members of the society to ease the problem.

Create diversified groups

As parents or teachers, encourage our children or students to mingle with friends of different races. I have taught in a few private institutions, and although in most situations my classes would be dominated by one particular ethnic group with a small number of other ethnic groups, it has always been my practice to want each group to include one or two members of another ethnic group or groups.

The whole idea is to make the groups as heterogeneous and as diversified as possible and keep mono-ethnic groups to a minimum. Students may feel uncomfortable at first, but once they have broken down the communication barriers and fear, they will start to integrate better and come to terms with a common language – even if that means using broken (or the rojak) language that Malaysia is known for.

Don’t judge, embrace flaws

While there is nothing we can do about the fact that different individuals will have different levels of language proficiency, what we can do is to reduce their fear of using a language they are not good at. In Malaysia, it is unfortunate that many Malaysians are unable to converse well in the national language.

But rather than condemning the situation and the people, I feel society has to come to terms with this reality: we need to encourage fellow Malaysians to speak and improve on the language instead so that a platform for a common language in Malaysia can be established.

Often, we focus too much on perfection that we forget about embracing flaws, and with that comes judgement, which in turn thwarts learning and improvement. This leads to the next point.

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Focus on communication

As educators – whether parents or teachers – we have to encourage the young to understand better the essence of communication, which is to get our message across from Point A to Point B. Unless it is involves teaching a language and unless it is absolutely necessary, we should not be overly critical about the grammatical aspect of language.

What is the use of being able to speak the Queen’s English if students are unable to get the message across? As a lecturer teaching non-language subjects, I have always told my students that in any of my assessments, it is the understanding of the subject matter that I am evaluating, not the language and grammar – unless the latter is a required learning outcome.

If they are weak in English, I would advise them to try expressing their points in short, simpler and less complicated sentences. I find that statements and actions like these really help students to loosen up as they know they will not be judged, encouraging them instead to speak and share their ideas in English as a common language, in a more relaxed and confident manner.

In the effort to cultivate ethnic sensitivity and inclusion among the young ones, it is the job of society to put things into practice and lead by example. These suggestions will remain theories if we continue to pretend it is all right to speak in our mother tongue in mixed-group interactions, especially in front of our young.

Malaysia Baru still has a long way to go, but the good thing about these calls making the rounds on the internet is that at least they get people talking and thinking.

Kenneth Lee Tze Wui, a lecturer with Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman, is passionate about issues of culture, identity and nation-building.

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