Monday, May 4, 2009

Questions about Malay that just hit me...

Most of my memories of learning the Malay language are not happy ones. Being a victim of the Malaysian education system, which consists almost entirely of rote learning of facts, all doomed to be forgotten not 5 minutes after the obligatory exam, I feel quite justified in saying that. As such, Malay was also another subject simply to be swallowed, held down and regurgitated, and since dragging my hide through one absurd test after another, I never really gave the language much thought*.

In my limited experience, learning a new language when you're older is one of the most interesting and rewarding intellectual exercises imaginable. When you're young, and your mother tongue is happily making a home for itself in your head, language is an instinct, like learning to walk. Through sheer exposure to a language, we, as children, bearing that wonderfully human power of mimicry, consume vast amounts of linguistic information without really having to think about it. During the early years, the formulation of rules of phonetics, phonology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics all quietly cobbled together in our subconscious mind, such that even before entering any kind of formal schooling (for all the bloody good that does) we are quite capable of simple communication, and the framework is set to consume far more information thanks to this language instinct**.

But, as some of us may have found, learning language is a completely different matter once you're older and have passed many years seeing the world through the lens of your mother tongue. There will be new words, grammar, maybe even a completely different system of writing to memorize. There will be any number of little phrases that may well make no sense whatsoever unless viewed in the context of the culture that language evolved in. If you're truly cursed, you'll be trying to learn English, that most monstrous chimera among languages, bastard child of damn near every European culture that ever laid eyes on the white cliffs of Dover.

Taking English as an example, on the face of it, it's a truly awful language to learn, riddled with more inconsistencies in grammar and spelling than you could shake a stick at. But dig past these blemishes and you'll find that to learn a language isn't merely an exercise in scarfing down new words and grammar, it is closely intertwined with the history and culture of the people(s) that spawned it. Every word has a tale to tell, and I for one cannot adequately express how much I've gained from learning Japanese these past few months***.

It's been well over a decade now since Malay was forced down my throat, and it occured to me that it might be worth a second look at, now that I'm old enough to know what it means to love knowledge for the sake of knowledge. So here's some questions about Malay that only recently struck me, in no particular order of importance, and mostly inspired by simple curiousity:

- I just learnt from Wikipe-tan that Malay is presently written in the Latin alphabet in a form known as Rumi. Where does this name come from? Does it have anything to do with the Persian poet of the same name? I'm pretty sure I didn't learn this in school. Why not?

- I hear that Old Malay, that is, the form that was in use about 1,500 years ago, is completely incomprehensible to a speaker of modern Malay or Indonesian. Wouldn't it be a good exercise to take a chunk of text in Old Malay and see the evolution of the language into it's modern form? You know, like seeing the King James Bible slowly degenerating into that Bible for Dummies version, the NIV...

- This question doesn't really have as much to do with Malay as it does with my relationship with Malay and cognitive linguistics. Having not used Malay for many, many years, I am now no longer capable of churning out Malay. Well, not completely, I can still rattle off short little set phrases and one or two commonly used words, but it takes me an absurdly long time to form sentences, to the point that if I were to try and hold a conversation in Malay, I really would appear mentally impaired. However, my ability to understand Malay, both written and spoken, remains almost perfectly intact since the day I last took exams in Malay. What's going on here? Do the bits corresponding to input and output for languages occupy completely different areas of the brain? Having encountered in this life many people who have the opposite inclination, i.e. talk too much, barely listen at all, I'm led to wonder about the link between input and output when it comes to languages.

And that's about all I can think up for now. Will update this list if and when more pertinent questions surface, maybe devote a post or two to answers, if I find them.

*Also, living in KL, one really can get by quite easily without knowing any Malay whatsoever.

** If you haven't already, you must read Steven Pinker's book, The Language Instinct. Your brain will thank you for it.

*** And not just to watch anime without subtitles, honest.

1 comment:

daemun said...

I used to have access to a really great etymological dictionary, but alas, having recently graduated it seems that I'm no longer able to access it online, though I'm sure it would have offered some insight into the origins of the word rumi. I'll keep poking around and see what I can find.

As for the ability to understand a language without being able to speak it (conversationally at least), a teacher of mine referred quite often to what he called passive speakers. Passive speaking is like the first phase of language learning as an adult, and its typically where we regress to when we stop using a language for a period of time. That man was the most brilliant linguist I've ever met. His focus was on aboriginal languages, and as a result he was fluent in several languages that are literally on the verge of extinction.

Anyways, as for why this happens, I think the best explanation would have to do with theories of memory and cognitive development; understanding requires one "cognitive action", recognition, whereas speaking requires two, recognition and retrieval, not to mention all the complex muscular activity involved in forming sounds. This also explains why children understand language before they're able to vocalize it.

Hopefully that offers a bit of insight, I've been away from the internet for a while, so I'm gonna go read the rest of your posts :)