Language and cultural identity

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Balancing National and International Needs in Public Universities in Malaysia
Saran Kaur Gill

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia

At the turn of the century, many Asian countries are faced with tensions arising from the linguistic shift in language policies stemming from pressures of globalization. Very often, these pressures arise as a result of the shift in domain use from that of the national language to the establishment of English as medium of instruction at varying levels of the education system, ranging from the primary to higher education. This increasing hegemony of English elicits reactions of varying degrees of anxiety over its impact on national cultural identities.
In this complex situation, Tsui and Tollefson (2007: 17&19) in their book, “Language policy, culture and identity in Asian Contexts” appropriately remind us that “the relationship between language policy and national cultural identity is dialectical.” It requires systematic reasoning to unravel the opposition between two interacting forces or elements of both the national and international needs of the nation. Therefore in this paper, it will be essential to unravel the opposing forces to understand the dynamics of changes in language policy and how the decisions impact on national cultural identities.
We will begin by going back to history – an appreciation of the past always helps us understand responses and reactions to decisions made in the present.

Malaysia, due to the exigencies of history, is a post-colonial nation with a diverse ethnic population possessing great social and cultural complexity. Malaysia has not just one but many significant languages, largely as a result of the immigrant ancestry of its multi-ethnic population. In this context, it is essential to examine the language policy decisions made in Malaysia in the pre and immediate post-independence period, a period rooted in traditional nationalism. What were the social and political concerns of the dominant ethnic group as it went about selecting and instituting the national language? Why was there a need to implement the traditional nationalism approach of a one-nation one-language policy for national needs?
The Growth of Nationalism and the Selection and Institution of Bahasa Melayu as the National and Official Language
After the British had given independence to Malaya in 1957, the dominant ethnic group, the Malay community, was plagued with the following questions: “who are the owners of the country? What are the symbols of national identity? What is the meaning of the nation’s history?” (Crouch, 1996: 155) The Malays during the pre-independence period of history felt insecure and threatened by the numerical and economic strength of the immigrant population. (cited in Crouch, 1996: 157)
These feelings of potential marginalisation coupled with enforced imperialism resulted in an acute need amongst the indigenous ethnic group for “their own cultures and histories be restored to a place of honour.” (Emerson, 1960: 152) They reinforced legitimization through symbolic categories like language, religion and the national anthem, which became very strong signs of identification. Recognition and acceptance of these symbols by other ethnic groups provided the dominant group with a feeling of collective worth and legitimacy. This was what Horowitz in his extensive discussion of ethnic group conflicts refers to as the need for groups, and especially dominant ethnic groups, to establish “relative group worth” and “relative group legitimacy” through political domination and the high symbolic content of politics of ethnic entitlement. (1985: 185)
Therefore, one of the strong symbolic claims that was asserted during this period was that of the institution of Bahasa Malaysia as the national language and official language - the language of education and administration. After all, the establishment of a national language is “the most powerful symbolic vehicle of nationalism.” (Coulmas, 1988: Preface) There was a strong feeling that a national language was needed not only to affirm their legitimacy as the dominant group in this country but also as a tool to unify the multi-ethnic citizenry of the nation – to provide a strong sense of cultural identity at the national level.
In the higher education context, universities play an integral role in intellectualizing and developing the higher-order human resource of a nation. The culture of an institution of higher learning is strongly intertwined with the selection and implementation of the language of education. Bahasa Malaysia, the selected national language, had an established agrarian and literary background. Therefore, to enable the language to function as a major player in the domain of education, it had to be modernized and equipped with terminology and structures for particularly the science and technology disciplines. For Bahasa Malaysia to be taken seriously as an intellectual language and to gain educational capital, it needed to be modernized and scholars had to be encouraged to write or translate specialized knowledge into the language. Thus, tremendous efforts and huge resources were injected for activating both status and corpus planning for over a period of 30 years.
Where then did this place English?
The transition from English to Bahasa Malaysia as the main medium of instruction began in 1969 in schools and reached university level in 1983. The role of English then became that of the first second language – from being the medium of instruction in schools, it became a subject that was compulsory to take but not to pass for all students in the school system.
The change in language policy from English language to Bahasa Malaysia spanned the period from the post-independence years to the 1980s. We move now to the 1990s. This period saw increasing signals for modification of language policy again, culminating in 2002 to a shift back to English for the field of science and technology as language of education.
Political Leadership: Background of Change
There are many reasons for this change (which have been dealt with in an article published by Gill (2005) but for this lecture I will focus on one. We will begin with an interview conducted with the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, which was part of a two-year government funded research project “Language Policy and Planning in Higher Education in Malaysia: Responding to the Needs of the Knowledge Economy.”
Mahathir was asked,
With regards to the recent change in the MOI in schools which

now have impacted higher education, what were the reasons that

provided the impetus for this change in language policy for the

fields of science and maths?
Our education system is like any other education system. It’s meant to enable us to acquire knowledge. If we have the knowledge available in the national language, by all means, go ahead but the fact is that in science the research that is being done is moving at a very fast pace. Everyday literally thousands of papers on new research are being published and practically all of them are in English. To translate English into Bahasa, would require a person with 3 skills. Skill in the 2 languages and skill in the subject that is to be translated and we don’t have very many people who are qualified to do that or who wish to do that. That is why it is easier if you learn English and the students can have direct access to all the knowledge that is available in English.” (Interview conducted by Gill on the 16 June, 2005)

Unraveling Factors Impacting the Change in Language Policy

This leads us to one of the major reasons for this change – the need to access science and technology in English and this has raised the challenge of translation and indigenous writings in Bahasa Malaysia. This then raises the next question, which is, why have all the efforts thus far not been sufficient for the nation to be able to access information and knowledge in the field of science and technology?
Crucial access to information in the field of science and technology: the slow pace of Publications/Translations in Bahasa

Shaharir, an established professor of maths, explicates cogently the various reasons for the slow rate of publications in Bahasa Malaysia. These range from lack of recognition of publications in Bahasa Malaysia in the promotion schemes of academics, to the lengthy process of publication which demoralises the efforts of the academic writers. (Shaharir, 2001: 107-119).

This is compounded by the fact that the translation process progressed at a slow pace. According to Hj. Hamidah Baba, executive director of the National Translation Agency (ITNM), a full time translator can only translate 5-8 pages a day, while a part-time translator can manage to translate a maximum of 3 pages a day (Hjh. Hamidah Baba, 2001: 7).
These reasons together with the knowledge explosion in English, concretely depicted by the fact there are over 100,000 scientific journals in the world and this number is increasing at the rate of 5000 articles per day adding to the 30 million existing” (Bilan cited in Martel, 2001: 51) paint an increasingly challenging situation for access to knowledge and information in English.
Having dealt with one of the main reasons for the change in language policy, it is important to find out about the key role players, the lecturers, in the implementation process to find out their attitudes and responses to this change in medium of instruction.

Key Players: Views on Change in Medium of Instruction

670 lecturers from 9 public universities were involved in this research. The majority of the lecturers (70.2%) from the 8 public universities agreed with the change in medium of instruction in line with governmental and national aspirations.

We move now to examine the responses of the lecturers of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM).

In contrast to the responses of the majority of lecturers from the other 8 public universities, at UKM a large majority disagreed with the change in medium of instruction - 70.5% of the respondents - and only a minority agreed - 29.5% of the respondents. To understand this, one must understand the history of UKM.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia was the first university established to use only Bahasa Melayu as the medium of education and this is the one university more than any other, that has worked tirelessly towards the use, development and modernization of Bahasa Melayu as a language of knowledge and education. The mission statement of this university is “mendaulatkan Bahasa Melayu.” An analysis of the semantics of the mission statement reveals the nationalistic strength with which the linguistic aspirations were held by the Malay intellectuals. The verb associated with Bahasa Melayu is mendaulatkan ‘to ennoble’ a verb normally only used in relation to royalty. In Malay culture, and in the nation, the King is held in the highest regard. Therefore the verb mendaulatkan has been used to regalise and stress the sacredness with which the language is viewed. This portrays the strength of the feelings that Malay intellectuals had towards the language and the mission of the university.
Smolicz explains the strong reactions of any group towards any attempt to alter the position of the language that represents a core element of their cultural identity. He says, “When people feel that there is a direct link between their identity as a group and what they regard as the most crucial and distinguishing element of their culture, the element concerned becomes a core value for the group. .… any attempt to alter its traditional culture, brings forth counter measures that help to pinpoint those values that the group considers as its cultural core, and, therefore, as meriting all efforts in their defense.” (Smolicz, 1981: 76)

Amongst the lecturers who felt frustrated with the change in language policy, there is great concern over the potential erosion of our national and ethnic cultural identity. There is a fear that nations will develop a generation who will forsake their cultural heritage in their pursuit of technological and economic power. This is similarly expressed by Tsui and Tollefson (2004: 7), who remind us that the change in the medium of instruction to English, “… may produce nationals who are ambivalent about their own identity, and nations that are stripped of their rich cultural heritage.” Thus, many nations are facing the challenge of having to develop a balance between national languages and the increasing spread and functions of English.
Are these fears legitimate? Does opening our educational borders to the dominant language mean that we have no means of protecting ourselves and will allow the imperial culture to bulldoze our national and ethnic identities?
How have other nations responded to this challenge?
Tsui and Tollefson (2007: 9) resolve the paradox by describing how other nations “reconstruct national cultural identities through the discourse of English.” They explain this reconstruction by describing how Japan, Korea and Malaysia have responded to this challenge. Due to the exigencies of time, we will not be dealing with Japan and Korea but will focus instead on the Malaysian context.
In the Malaysian context, with the challenges of globalization and international economic competitiveness, nationalism and the national cultural identity is reconstructed through the need to develop the nation through English. Academics who still express their unhappiness with the situation of language shift need to be made aware of the change in mindset needed to appreciate the change needed for the concept of nationalism for these present times. The former Prime Minister, who provided the driving force for this change in language of instruction reminds us that the whole concept of nationalism needs to be re-defined. Tun Mahathir stresses that,

“We need to move from the extreme form of nationalism which concentrates on being a language nationalist only, not a knowledge nationalist, not a development oriented nationalist. I feel that we should be a development oriented nationalist. We want our people to succeed, to be able to stand tall, to be respected by the rest of the world. Not to be people with no knowledge of science and technology, very poor, very backwards, working as servants to other people. If we have no knowledge we will be servants to those with knowledge.” (Interviewed by Gill, 16 June 2005)

It is clear that the message that is conveyed is an essential need for the reconstruction of nationalism or national cultural identity through English – a move from linguistic nationalism to knowledge-driven nationalism , development oriented nationalism which is integral for the entire nation.
With these paradoxical challenges facing our nation, what should our priority be for present times? Whilst we are concerned and devoting efforts to the maintenance and sustenance of national cultural identities through Bahasa Malaysia, lecturers are facing the challenges of the shift in medium of instruction, which places tremendous pressure and demands on the academics. This is especially so for academics who belong to what is described as the “language transition generation” – in transition because they have been educated in Bahasa Malaysia, lectured and taught in Bahasa Malaysia and are now switching over to English and are expected to pedagogically perform and function effectively in English.
In the field of teaching and learning, the mastery of the language which functions as the medium of instruction is important, being able to use it to impart knowledge and ideas to students is important. But it takes time to acquire a high level of competency. Therefore what should be done in the interim period?
For this, it would be good to turn to the European experience to forge the direction we need to take to assist this linguistic transition generation during this transitional period of language change.
Wilkinson describes the nature of communication challenges facing higher education institutions, when he says,
“learning content through a foreign language implies more than changing the language of instruction, it also involves the conscious design of programmes that integrate both content and language goals. …. This is because merely offering programmes through a foreign language without setting performance targets in the use of the content-related language puts the quality and the reputation of both the programme and the institution at risk.” (Wilkinson, 2004: 10)
The questions that we need to consider and work at to assist our academic staff face the challenges of enhancing teaching and learning in a new medium have been laid out by the Director-General for Education and Culture of the European Commission. He articulates these ideas in the European higher education context but they are considerations that are relevant in the Malaysian context. He says,
How can we make sure that staff who teach through the medium of a foreign language have adequate communicative competence in that language and a specialist training in the skills of CLIL3, as well as in the other subject?
How can we make sure that academic staff have adequate training in setting learning objectives and in assessing learning outcomes in a CLIL environment (which is after all very different from the standard learning environment)?
In short, how can universities make sure that staff teaching through an additional language really are integrating the content and the language?” (Holdsworth, 2004: 26)
This then is the research that needs to be carried out, which is to examine the nature of the training provided for academic staff to equip themselves with competencies to be able to integrate both language and content in the field of science and technology.
In conclusion, it is the academic leaders of public universities who will have to decide the priorities and direction that universities should take at this point in time. The anxiety between maintenance of linguistic nationalism and development oriented pragmatism can be reduced if we remind ourselves of the fact that mastering and using another language does not eliminate feelings for the nation, and need not affect our national cultural identity.
Along these lines, it is appropriate to end with this quote from a case in the United States, which even though arguing for a different language and nation holds a strong message for us in Malaysia as we grapple with the notion of linguistic national identity in the face of the challenges of globalization.

It is taken from an insightful article by Aneta Pavlenko which is titled, “We have room for but one language here”: Language and national identity in the US at the turn of the 20th century. She quotes from the memoirs of a German-American, Richard Bartholdt (1930), a successful politician whose dreams to run for Senate were thwarted by the anti-German hysteria of World War I. He articulates an emotional defense for the relationship between language and national identity by asserting,

“… what has mere speech, the twisting of the tongue in one way or the other, to do with the loyalty of the citizen? It is not lip service a country needs, but genuine patriotism, and the source of that is man’s conscience and not his tongue. If we have true loyalty in our heart of hearts, we can express it in any other language as beautifully as in English. Why, a man can be a good and true American without even knowing English, the same as a man who is physically unable to speak at all. It is right and proper that every American citizen, male and female, should master the language of the country. Even aside from public considerations, this is in their own interest. But from this it is a far cry to the assertion which nowadays is so often made, at least by implication, that a man cannot become a real American, if his mother-tongue is a language other than English. (Bartholdt, 1930: 30 cited in Pavelenko, 2002: 188)

Coulmas, F. 1988. What is a National Language Good For? In With Forked Tongues – What are National Languages Good For? Edited by Florian Coulmas. Singapore: Karoma Publishers. 1-24.
Crouch, H. 1996. Government and Society in Malaysia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Gill, Saran. K. Interview Conducted with Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia on the16 June 2005 at the Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur: Malaysia.

Gill, Saran K., Hazita Azman, Norizan Abdul Razak and Fadhil Mansor. 2003-2005. Language Policy and Planning in Higher Education in Malaysia: Responding to the Needs of the Knowledge Economy. A project classified under the Intensified Research Priority Areas, funded by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, Malaysia.

Gill, Saran K. 2005. Language Policy in Malaysia: Reversing Direction. Language Policy. Vol. 4(3): 241-260.
Hajah Hamidah Baba. 2001. Program Penterjemahan Buku Ilmu: Pengalaman dan Perancangan. Kuala Lumpur: Institut Terjemahan Negara Berhad.
Holdsworth, P. 2004. EU policy on language learning and linguistic diversity as it relates to Content and Language Integrated Learning and Higher Education. In Integrating Content and Language – Meeting the Challenge of a Multilingual Higher Education. Edited by Robert Wilkison. Netherlands: Universitaire Pers Maastricht. 20-27.
Horowitz, Donald, L. 1985. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Martel, A. 2001. When Does Knowledge Have a National Language? Language Policy-Making for Science and Technology. In Ammon, Urich (Ed), The Dominance of English as a Language of Science : Effects on other Languages and Language Communities. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Pavlenko, 2002 ….
Shaharir Mohamad Zain. 2001. Paper presented at the 1st UC-UKM International Regional Conference on Technology and Society, held on 7th and 8th September 2000 at Bangi Equatorial Hotel.
Tsui, Amy B.M. and Tollefson, James W. 2007. Language Policy and the Construction of National Cultural Identity. In Language Policy, Culture and Identity in Asian Contexts. Edited by Amy B.M. Tsui and James W. Tollefson. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. 1-21.

Wilkinson, R. 2004. Introduction. In Integrating Content and Language – Meeting the Challenge of a Multilingual Higher Education. Edited by Robert Wilkison. Netherlands: Universitaire Pers Maastricht. 9-12.

3 CLIL is Content and Language Integrated Learning

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