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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I can't speak Hokkien, so I'm learning Swahili

Originally from The Electric New Paper

I can't speak Hokkien, so I'm learning Swahili
HABARI za asubuhi, babu, wariye?
By Ng Tze Yong
22 March 2009

HABARI za asubuhi, babu, wariye?

Before you hit 'send' on a complaint e-mail, be assured that's not a keyboard error.

It's Swahili for: 'Good morning, ah kong, eat already or not?'

If you're still in school, picture the day you become an 'ah kong' (grandfather in Chinese).

When your grandkids come bouncing along to visit you as you lounge in your wheelchair, what language will they use?

It may be English or Mandarin or, who knows, perhaps Swahili.

That's right. Swahili - one of Africa's mother tongues.

Economies can rise and fall in a single generation. For all we know, business or cultural opportunities might spring up in Africa.

It's got people (almost a billion of them). It's got resources (it's where those blood diamonds came from). So, despite its current woes, let's not rule out Africa in the 22nd century.

If this comes to pass, we'll probably embrace Swahili because Singaporeans know very well that for a small country to survive and thrive in an ever-changing world, we must go with the linguistic flow.

So say 'jambo' (hello in Swahili).

(It's actually easier than Mandarin!)

Appreciating language as culture

Together with the pragmatic learners of language (those who embrace its utilitarian value), hopefully there will also be those who seek out new languages out of a broad appreciation of different cultures.

All languages have stories to tell. And many are going extinct.

As a French academic noted, 'half of the 6,000 or so languages in the world today are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people and a quarter by less than 1,000. Only a score are spoken by hundreds of millions of people.'

So, many cultures will disappear without leaving any trace as languages die. At least 30,000 have already vanished.

'Languages usually have a relatively short life span as well as a very high death rate. Only a few, including Basque, Egyptian, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Persian, Sanskrit and Tamil, have lasted more than 2,000 years,' says Mr Ranka Bjeljac-Babic, from the University of Poitiers.

So, how would I feel if my grandkids come up to me spouting a new language?

I'd feel what my own ah kong feels now - resignation, that his own grandson can't speak Hokkien to save his life.

But just as he tries to keep up with the times - the one and only English word he knows is 'good' - I'll try too.

'Nzuri,' I'll say.

Good that the young are reaching out to other languages and cultures.

Good that the stories embedded in languages are being kept alive.

But not so good if our own stories wither away due to the neglect of the languages we grew up with.

If only we could all learn three or more languages. But unfortunately for most people, the human brain is not wired to learn so many.

Now, what's the word for 'pity' in Swahili?

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