When people move to another country, by the third generation, something unusual happens to the language they speak in their homes. It usually changes to the language spoken most widely in the host country. However, in Malaysia, this may not always be the case. Instead, the religious affiliation of a community seems to be a stronger determinator of the language a community is likely to shift to.

Take the case of Malayalee Malaysians. Dr Dipika Mukherjee, coeditor (with Maya Khemlani David) of Speaking In Many Tongues: National Language Planning And Language Shifts In Malaysian Minority Communities, says that when Malayalees first arrived on these shores, all of them spoke Malayalam and practiced similar customs.

“When you look at third generation Malayalees in Malaysia, it is only the Muslims that speak Malay as their home language. The other groups, the Hindus and the Christians, are starting to move towards English,” Dr Mukherjee says.

To some people, this is a side effect of cultural assimilation, a natural happening which should come as no surprise. Linguists, however, are fascinated by this phenomenon.

“Religion has not really been much of a variable in the traditional studies of language variation because socioeconomic factors such as professional aspirations, socioeconomic status, ethnicity and even gender usually played a part,” Dr Mukherjee said at a lecture entitled “Religious Identity And Language Variation In Malaysia: Case Studies From Migrant Communities” that she delivered at the official residence of the US Ambassador to Malaysia recently.

There have been scholarly analyses of the role of religion in language variation before, she says, citing Omoniyi and Liddicoat as examples (see details below). These studies, however, reveal religion as a factor mostly in faith-based places such as temples as synagogues, something that is not true of Malaysia.

“In any study around the world, where you have migration, when you have the third generation, they usually change their language at home to be what the outside community speaks. In English-speaking countries, Korean immigrants, Indian immigrants, they usually speak to their parents in English, and maybe their grandparents in the native tongue. More often, though, they lose everything of the original language except for words for food and kinship terms,” Dr Mukherjee says.

Dr Dipika Mukherjee displays two of her works, her academic study Speaking in Many Tongues and her short story anthology Rules of Desire.

In the Malaysian context, it’s usually the use of Bahasa Malaysia versus English. This is the result of sociological and socioeconomic factors, including the introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1971.

“In Malaysia, what we found was there was resistance to Bahasa. There was a national language policy in place to unite everyone, and children were taught Malay at schools. But Malay was not the language spoken at home for every community,” says Dr Mukherjee.

According to her, one rare instance when traditional languages were retained over English and Malay was in religious rituals. Again, the situation is changing in places like the US, where religious texts are more likely to be translated into English (during marriage ceremonies, for example) for the benefit of the majority.

Occasionally, she says, nuances and cultural significances of a text or religious ritual is lost in translation: “For example, there’s this beautiful song to the goddess Kali, written in Bengali. The word ‘Kali’ also means ink. But when you translate, you can’t do that, you have to choose one meaning, ‘goddess’ or ‘ink’, and explain the nuances in a footnote below,” Dr Mukherjee points out.

“But that whole song is beautiful wordplay by a poet, singing about how whenever he thinks of ‘kali’, he has ‘kali’ in his hands, in his mouth. You may think he’s talking about ink, but it is really about the goddess. And you lose some of that in translation.”

However, Dr Mukherjee says cultural loss is a common consequence of the immigration experience. Language is a living thing that has to evolve with the circumstances.

“It’s something that most immigrant populations have to come to terms with. It happens so much in the United States. But, as the Tamil chapters in the book explain, there tends to be a ‘cultural’ Tamil, and a ‘language’ Tamil. So even if they lose the ‘language’ Tamil, they still keep their culture, and know who they are and where they come from,” she says.

Regardless, she says that the loss of various languages could deprive Malaysia of having a truly rich, unique cultural heritage.

“In the Malaysian situation, we could be truly multilingual. Malaysians have so many languages at their disposal, including Malay and English,” Dr Mukherjee says.

“And it’s hard to have proper discussions about this, because of taboos and so on, although we’re trying. I think all of us, as writers and academics and thinkers, whatever we publish, our aim should be to get people to confront their biases and preconceptions on these matters.”

About Dr Dipika

Dr Dipika Mukherjee, an Indian national with Malaysian PR status, is a sociolinguist with interests in language shifts in diasporic communities.

She has taught in China, India, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Singapore, and the United States. She is currently faculty associate at the Roberta Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies and teaches at the Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at the Northwestern University in the United States.

Dr Mukherjee is also an established novelist: her debut book, Thunder Demons (Gyaana, 2011), was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize, and will soon be republished as Ode To Broken Things by Repeater in Britain. Her collection of short stories, Rules Of Desire, was published by Malaysian indie publishing house Fixi last month.

Speaking With Many Tongues was coauthored with Maya Khemlani David and published by the Amsterdam University Press in 2011. The book, Dr Mukherjee explains, arose from her research on the Malaysian Bengali community starting in 1993, after she become interested in women and language change within the diasporic community.

It contains case studies from many communities around the region (such as the Tamil Aiyers, the Sindhis in Kuching, Chinese-speaking communities in Sarawak, Malay-Javanese migrants, and Portuguese Eurasians) as well as Dr Mukherjee’s own studies of 14 Bengali women migrants in the Klang Valley.

The Sociology Of Language And Religion: Change, Conflict And Accommodation edited by Omoniyi Tope (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); ‘Language Planning As An Element Of Religious Practice’ by Anthony Liddicoat in Current Issues In Language Planning vol.13, no.2, 2012.