KOTA KINABALU: A local newspaper’s decision to cease running its Kadazan language page here recently was met with much disappointment by the community who rued its effect on the promotion and preservation of their mother tongue.
But while one community griped about the Daily Express publishing its final printed words in Kadazan on May 30, the issue brought to light a much larger problem at hand, namely the preservation of Sabah’s other native languages.
An indigenous study expert says Kadazan Dusun is among the languages considered threatened in Sabah as rated by a world language measuring system.
But there are other smaller dialects in the state in danger of vanishing, if people sit on their laurels.
Fortunately, Sabahans are an attentive bunch, according to Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) Professor Dr. Jacqueline Pugh-Kitingan.
Pugh-Kitingan, head of the Culture, Heritage and Arts Cluster at the Borneo Institute for Indigenous Studies, said most indigenous and non-indigenous Austronesian languages in Sabah are, according to the Ethnologue (R) Database of the World’s Languages, threatened.
She said these languages are rated as 6b (Threatened) which means “the language is used for face-to-face communication within all generations, but it is losing users.”
“Kadazandusun alone is rated as 6b, although not all the Dusunic languages such as Labuk Kadazan (among others).
“In some remote areas it is 6a (vigorous) but overall they are threatened,” she told Borneo Today.
The Ethnologue has a measuring system called the Expanded Graded Interrupted Disruption Scale (EGIDS), consisting of 13 levels from 0, meaning it is used internationally, and 10 is for extinct.
Each higher number on the scale represents a greater level of disruption to the inter-generational transfer of the language.
An ideal EGIDS measure would be 6a, meaning the language is used for face-to-face communication by all generations and the situation is sustainable.
“A few, such as Northern Tidung and Southern Tidung are 7 (Shifting), which means the child-bearing generation can use the language among themselves, but it is not being transmitted to children,” said Pugh-Kitingan.
“The status of Gana, a tiny Murutic language of Bingkor on the Keningau plain, west of the Pagalan River is classified as 8a (Moribund) – the only remaining active users of the language are members of the grandparent generation and older.
“This is because Gana is a small group of around 2,000 of whom only 250 now speak the language.
“They are surrounded by the large Kuruyou (Kuijau) Dusun language speakers, and across the river to the east by the large Keningau Murut language speakers. There has been a lot of intermarriage with Kuruyou Dusun and Gana, and families tend to use Kuruyou,” she said.
Pugh-Kitingan pointed out that certain languages like the Ida’an-Begaak-Subpan language has two ratings.
“It is classified as 6b, but its Subpan dialect can be said to be 8a, due to intermarriage of the Subpan people with speakers of Paitanic languages such as Tombonuo or Sungai and Upper Kinabatangan,” she said.
Kadazandusun Cultural Association (KDCA) Supreme Council member Rayner Francis Udong concurred that the language of the riverine communities along the Kinabatangan river would be at risk if nothing is done to rectify the situation.
Udong, who is also KDCA’s Dewan Bahasa Kadazandusun chairman, said the Dusun Bonggi, who reside in the state’s northern parts particularly Banggi Island off Kudat, is another dialect that warrants attention.
“We went there sometime in the late 1990s and while it (Dusun Bonggi) originated from the Dusun language, I could only understand two words out of 10 – that shows you how unique it is, even among Dusunic speakers.
“At that time, not many were interested to learn that language and at the same time the community was also not exposed to developments of other languages.
“From my observation, why the language is in decline is because some members of the community who have gone for higher studies have not promoted the dialect or encouraged others to speak other main languages like Malay.
“If nothing is done, it could be one of the endangered dialects in the long run in Sabah, it can vanish,” Udong said.
Pugh-Kitingan said the language situation in Sabah is a complex one, with around 60 major languages which include ancient indigenous Austronesian languages, cross-border Austronesian languages from other parts of Borneo and adjacent islands, and migrant languages.
Of the indigenous languages, the Dusunic, Murutic and Paitanic families of languages, as well as the single Ida’an-Bega’ak-Subpan isolated language and others total around 33 languages.
“Kadazan Dusun, the largest single language in Sabah, is but one of around 10 to 12 Dusunic languages. The Murutic family has around 15 languages while the Paitanic family has around six languages,” she said.
Why the languages are in decline
Pugh-Kitingan said firstly intermarriage between speakers of different languages can be a factor if the couple only speak in the dominant language to their children, causing the other language to be neglected.
“But secondly, and more seriously in most cases, many parents speak to each other and their friends in their native language, but insist on speaking to their children in a broken version of the Sabah Malay dialect which is the market place lingua franca throughout Sabah.
“These parents mistakenly believe that this will help the children do well at school, which uses standard Malay, not Sabah Malay, as the main medium of instruction.
“This is a serious mistake, because Sabah Malay and standard Malay are not the heritage languages of most indigenous children. Many children end up neither fluent in their heritage language nor in standard Malay,” she pointed out.
Udong agreed, saying something as crucial as their mother tongue could only be effectively mastered if nurtured from home.
“As the saying goes ‘charity starts at home’. It all must start from the family and this highlights the importance of parents in playing this role of being the first teachers of their own language.
“They must have the initiative to come up with strategies or rules to ensure their children learn to speak the language and eventually become like breathing,” he said.
Pugh-Kitingan shared that a third but not serious factor for the decline was when there is a strong outside language being spoken among children of different ethnic groups in certain environments.
For example, she said, the school yards of most primary schools and as well as Chinese schools which, in Sabah, are attended by children from all ethnic backgrounds.
“Children will pick up and speak the dominant language, usually Hakka, in that environment among their friends. This should not affect the child’s heritage language if parents maintain the mother tongue in the home.
“In fact, it is beneficial for children to be exposed to as many languages as possible including Hakka.
“But if the home is not using the heritage language of the children, this language will decline,” Pugh-Kitingan stressed.
Sabah communities pitch in to preserve languages
The upside about the whole matter, said Pugh-Kitingan, is that Sabahans were aware and concerned about the decline of their heritage languages among their children.
And to her delight, various ethnic groups in Sabah are increasingly developing kindergartens for their children using their heritage languages as the medium of instruction.
“The huge Kadazan Dusun language group has various private kindergartens run by communities in various local dialects – in Penampang, for example, there are kindergartens in the Coastal Kadazan dialect set up by Kadazandusun Language Foundation.
“In Ranau many SIB churches and others have set up kindergartens in Central Dusun and various other dialects.
“The Kimaragang Dusun of Kota Marudu have established kindergartens in the Kimaragang language.
“Among the Iranun of Kota Belud, there are several private kindergartens teaching children in the Iranun language.
“Among the Ida’an of Lahad Datu, besides kindergartens, the Pertubuhan Kebajikan Idahan Pewaris Madai (Pewaris) has established a tuition centre in Ida’an for young children,” she said.
She added that many other indigenous associations and non-governmental organisations including church groups are also doing their bid, setting up early education institutions to teach children to read, write and count in their heritage languages.
“This is so important. It has been proven worldwide over 70 years, and also in Sabah/North Borneo in former times with the Native Volunteer Schools, that when a young child learns to read in their heritage language, the child’s cognitive development with regard to symbols and sounds will develop.”
This advantage will allow the children to be able to easily shift into a national language in a school system later because of their cognitive-linguistic development, regardless of how different that national language may be.
“These children will score higher at primary and secondary schools, and go on to tertiary education – this has been confirmed among Iranun children in Kota Belud.
“Those who learned to read and write in Iranun in kindergarten are now scoring higher marks at both levels compared to their peers who were forced to learn a ‘foreign’ language (standard Malay) at kindergarten,” Pugh-Kitingan said.
“It has been shown that this fluency from learning to read and write in a child’s heritage language is directly proportional to the eradication of poverty and national stability because those children have the potential to do well and develop, regardless of their economic backgrounds, to one day become educated leaders.”
She also paid tribute to another group, SIL Malaysia, which has been working under an official agreement with the Sabah government since 1978.
“The group has done major research on the languages of Sabah, published with the state museum, and also has an ongoing memorandum of understanding for research and project collaborations with UMS.
“They have also trained indigenous communities to produce their own dictionaries and published literature in their heritage languages,” said Pugh-Kitingan
Udong, meanwhile, is also happy with contributions from higher learning institutions like UMS, Sabah Universiti Teknologi Mara as well as Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris.
“These establishments are doing a good job and they should continue what they are doing including exploring other avenues to further promote and preserve native languages,” he said.
What more needs to be done?
Besides building more kindergartens, Udong drove home his message that early education must begin from the humble abode, with parents having a regimented routine to ease their children into the language.
“Parents must set a rule to speak to their children in their mother tongue, say for instance, once a week, from morning to night.
“In terms of syllabus at school, I suggest a body be established to incorporate at least 70 per cent of the dialects in Sabah into the system,” he said, adding the KDCA is keen to help in such efforts.
Pugh-Kitingan, on the other hand, believes in a much earlier head start.
“Parents must speak to their children from birth in their heritage language.
“Where parents come from two different language groups, each parent must consistently speak to the baby or little child in their own language, so that the child acquires both languages.
“No, the child will not become confused. Every baby learns a foreign language, and if a child is exposed to many languages before the age of 12, they will always psychologically maintain that language acquisition facility in their brains.
“They will never have to ‘learn’ another language, like people raised in monolingual environments,” she explained.
Pugh-Kitingan was of the opinion that since the Kadazan Dusun is taught as a set subject at primary and secondary schools, the same course template should be applied to other Dusunic languages.
Namely Rungus, Kimaragang, Tobilung, Sandayoh, Lotud, Labuk Dusun, Kuruyou and Bisaya, among others.
“For example in Kudat, where the majority of the population are Rungus, students should be able to study the Rungus language as a subject at school.
“Asking them to learn Kadazan Dusun is like getting them to learn another ‘foreign’ language because Kadazan Dusun and Rungus are different, though related, languages,” she said.
At the end of the day, Pugh-Kitingan said government support is pivotal because they are the main provider of education in the country.
She pointed out it is a win-win prospect for the government as heritage language literacy is an important tool that can be utilised to achieve poverty eradication, recognition of indigenous rights and general literacy improvement.
“It can also be used to attain higher educational standards and employability, an increase in national language fluency, and a reduction in youth delinquency, crime and drug addiction,” she said.
She affirmed that any financial investment by the government in this will eventually reap long-term benefits of national development and stability.