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Multilingual Malaysia

By March 29, 2010

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An interesting article on the Foreign Policy Journal website talks about the multiculturalism of Malaysia, while discussing monkeys, food and religion.

The author, Antonio Graceffo, says that "the Chinese community in Malaysia is broken into dialect groups," and each group keeps mostly to itself.

But 20 years or so ago, when the only Chinese TV in Malaysia came from Hong Kong, all the Chinese communities watched it, and learned to speak Cantonese. "And when people from different groups met, they spoke Cantonese to each other. So, Cantonese became the lingua franca among the Chinese communities."

In recent years, Mandarin private schools have become popular, so now young Malaysian Chinese speak to each other in Mandarin.

But Malaysia has a big mix of languages - Malay, Tamil, Hindi, English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, and Hokien.

So there is a certain negotiation involved when starting up a conversation:

"But what do you do if you meet a Cantonese speaker who doesn't speak Mandarin?" I asked.
"We speak English to each other," explained Sheung Di.

Similarly, speak Malay to a Malay person, unless he wants to speak English. Speak English to an Indian person, unless he doesn't speak English.

What a fascinating mixture of languages, and what a good article.

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