One’s language is part of one’s identity



This year, I am making a very conscious effort to make Zayan and Ayman learn and speak more malay. I’ve finished reading the book ‘Raising a bilingual child’ – I dont really recommend it unless you’re into the whole research behind it. Most of the book is research on bilingualism and case studies of different bilingual (or trilingual or polygot) families. It didnt really add in that much practical tips, which is what I’m after.

What it did tell me is that to be successful in having a bilingual kid, you have to:

  1. Have positive attitude
  2. Have belief that they can do it
  3. Be consistent

See, I am only half-hearted in all three aspects above. I get frustrated when they dont understand me, I keep forgetting to talk more in Malay (also it is easy and less complicated) and I keep doubting that my kids will ever get there.

Some people have said ‘its ok, they’ll learn it once they’re in Brunei’. Really? I struggled with my Malay GCE O level and I lived in Brunei all my life!!! What I don’t want them to have to do is start at a disadvantage and having to catch up. What I also do not want is for them to feel like an outsider – language is after all a large part of one’s cultural identity.

One of the things pushing me more is the fact that my parents dont really speak English. They can get by in public places, buying things, asking for directions and understanding to navigate around in UK. To really have more than a superficial conversation, it would be done in Malay. So when the kids skype with their grandparents or when my parents come over (or when we visit), I do wish the kids can talk freely to my parents. Not just superficial conversation of ‘what did you do, do you want to eat, where did you go’.

I grew up in a household of Malay speaking parents and their generation and the generation above. Even now, most of our conversation will be done in Malay and the odd English word from me if I can’t remember what it is in Malay. My parents sent me to a private primary school. All private schools are of English medium, so I spoke English in my classes (except for obviously malay class). I watched American TV shows and movies, which half explains my (weird) accent. It’s funny because all the white teachers I’ve encountered in Brunei are either from UK, Australia or New Zealand. I read books in English mostly.

Then I went to a government high school, which is also of English medium. For awhile, I thought kids grew up like me – speaking a combination of malay and english. Until I started religious classes (think it was in Year 2), which is actually a different school of its own – you go to sekulah pagi (morning school), have lunch and then go to sekulah ugama in the afternoon (religious school). Most morning and ugama schools are located separately, though I think it’s combined now (or some schools are combined now).

In ugama school, everything is in malay. And it’s not the malay you talk at home, which is Bruneian malay dialect. It’s formal malay. Also ugama schools are government schools, so all the private school kids have to go to one anyway. I learnt very early on not to show my english speaking ability to my classmates. ‘Eeeee, speaking yaaaa….’ Yes you get mocked. You’re seen as a posh kid showing off, unless of course you meet other ‘speaking‘ kids.

And as I grew up, I just spoke, read and wrote more in English. My speech would be a combination of both malay and english language. I came to realise how bad my malay is when I was in Year 11. We had a mock oral Malay exam and I failed terribly (think I had a ‘Just Pass’). I couldnt utter complete sentences smoothly. Dont get me wrong, I can speak Bruneian malay just fine, but the problem is that the language you speak at home is informal and not in complete sentences. So I worked hard to get my malay grade up, mostly by reading and practising writing malay compositions.

Now I go days without talking in malay (does Whatsapp conversation even count?) and I actually miss it and do get tired of speaking in English! Ngalih bah sebenarnya cakap dalam urang puteh ani. Kadang2 mau cakap melayu saja pasal ngalih lidah ani.

I also realise that once it gets late late (past midnight), I struggle with putting english words together. It’s as if my brain is tired and then I think in malay and then have to think some more to translate it to speak english. I remember being really frustrated during handover after a night shift – I just couldn’t construct my sentences smoothly to hand over properly after a hectic 12 hour shift.

So yeah, I want my kids to learn malay (mumtathil is learning by osmosis and he’s good with languages like that) because they’ll learn more about me too. There are just some phrases in malay that you can’t translate properly into.

‘Gerigitan ku’ is a phrase usually directed to either cute babies or when you’re really annoyed at someone. It literally means ‘I want to bite’ – so either you mean ‘that baby is so cute, I just want to bite him/her’ OR ‘He’s so annoying, I just want to bite him’ (imagine annoyed person clenching jaw, fangs out kinda thing).

I have also used the phrase ‘Apeeeh’ (which is short version of ‘Apa eh’) with my kids. Usually when Ayman tries to be all cute and silly, kambang nya urang Brunei. The direct translation is ‘What eh’ but I mean it as ‘you’re being silly now, look at you’. It can also be used as an expression of dismay, disbelief or pleasant surprise. But said in a different tone.

‘So-and-so won the lottery!’


‘I’m getting married!’


Kid acting all silly (aka capi-capi).

‘Apeeeh, kambang jua.’

I dont think the kids truly understand what it means but they seem to understand the context of it being used. Ayman was being capi-capi one day and Zayan went ‘Apeeeehhh’. That cracked me up.

Kambang and capi2 are also adjective words that cannot be truly translated into English. Kambang can be obnoxious or arrogant but when used with kids, it can also mean ‘acting up’. So sometimes kids act all silly and extra loud when there are guests/strangers, this is called ‘kambang’.

Anyway, that’s it for now. Next time I’ll talk about my struggles with raising bilingual kids!



1 Comment

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One response to “One’s language is part of one’s identity

  1. Shar

    Hi Bibiranbanar

    I can relate to your struggle, it is very hard for myself to sustain malay conversations with my kids, when I know they won’ t understand me. It also doesn’t help that there is no one to speak malay with around me. But being in Wales, I see similar struggles within mixed welsh-speaking and non-welsh-speaking couples, I have seen the conviction they have to carry on the language and Welsh schools has an ‘all-welsh’ approach to make sure the children truly immerse themselves in the language. Not quite the same at home when you are the curator of the language development at home. But definitely, just go for it, speak it, enjoy it, mean it, save it (if you may), and don’t worry if they don’t get you, they will figure it out.

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