Thursday, March 15, 2012

Not quite everywhere

With English becoming a part of life for all kinds of people all around Asia, I sometimes wonder if there are still areas where it is of little importance. I certainly hope there are at least a few left! Well, last week I found one. I attended a Malay wedding at a town near the capital of Kuala Lumpur, where English is widely spoken alongside Malay, Chinese or Tamil. I was accompanying Malaysian friends who regularly use English both at work and in their social life. But for the few hours that I was there, the only English I heard was when people addressed me.

The happy couple and their families were Malay , so not surprisingly this was the main language. The wedding invitation had been sent out in Malay, the banners and signs were in Malay, the MC gave his announcements and told his jokes in Malay, and I did my best to speak Malay - though, typically, most people, except for the older ones, replied to me in English. (While Indonesians seem happy enough to talk to foreigners in their national language, most Malaysian rapidly switch to English.)

There was also some Arabic in the ceremonial functions and the greetings people gave to one another. In Malaysia, all Malays are Muslim, and matters regarding marriage, family affairs and inheritance are regulated according to Muslim law and tradition, so the Arabic language plays an indispensable part in Malay life.

Then there was one more language there that at first I didn't notice: Minang. This is a language related to Malay spoken widely in western Sumatra as well as in some Minang migrant communities that have settled in other parts of Indonesia or in Malaysia. Nowadays few people in Malaysia speak it, but it survives there in songs and sayings and ceremonies. As in almost any wedding anywhere, the celebrations were punctuated by songs, with enthusiastic audience participation, and a number of these were in Minang.

Which reminds me, English was not entirely absent, in fact. Towards the end of the afternoon when younger members of the audience got up to sing, they tended to favour current English-language favourites.

As for me, I used to spend time in Sumatra and know a couple of Minang songs. But - perhaps fortunately - no one asked me to go up and any language.