[IRL Adventures] SWF19: Language and the Colony

From the 1st – 10th of November Singapore had the yearly Writers Festival!!


In fact!! I went to SEVERAL events and took notes!!!!!!!!


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ft. Melanie Mununggurr-Williams, Farish A Noor, Waubgeshig Rice & Darlene Machell Espena

One of the effects of colonialism has been the way in which language was deployed to divide society, affecting the language of the colonised. We invite three writers and thinkers to consider the effects of this political use of language in former colonies, and how language has evolved in the wake of postcolonial thought.


WR: I’m Anishinaabe and white, and my grandma only learned English when she was around 13 years old when she was forced to in town. People in Canada are still coping with the trauma of that. The Indian Act prevented native people from speaking their own language and as a result my own grandparents wanted their kids to learn English and succeed, and now I can barely speak my own mother tongue.. Three generations and the language is almost gone!! There are more than 58 indigenous languages in Canada today, but only 3 are predicted to last till the 22nd century: Cree, Ojibwe and Inuktitut. But in my community in the 1980s, we were reconnecting with our culture although our language was absent and we would have our elders come and share stories of our culture, but in English..

WR: Growing up in the 1990s I wasn’t aware of any indigenous authors because it wasn’t in the curriculum. Fortunately I had an aunt that showed me these stories. And now in Canada there’s a bit of a re-connection of indigenous storytellers telling their truth in English and they are best sellers and getting awards. The next step needs to be getting empowered and taking back what we lost.

MM: Aboriginal Australians have a similar history to Canada. My grandmother was a child when white people came to her community, and she even remembers what it was like to see a white man for the first time. They were given white names and birthdays – birthdays were assigned for colonisation purposes. A big part of our history was about trying to erase our language and being punished for using them. (Why she writes poetry in her own language and refuses to translate it.)

FN: I’m a professor who works on colonial history in South East Asia. Colonies in SEAsia were created differently to Canada. We had a multicultural language policy in place and the colonised language wasn’t made the language of the colony. In 19th century SEAsia they developed this notion that the empire would be threatened if the colonised became too educated, because the language of the colonised was the language of the governing bodies. So the tool of colonisation was not meant to be shared. SEAsia was cut up and part of different networks, different empires. And still to this day it is hard for scholars in Indonesia, for example, to access Dutch papers. Same goes for French Indochina.. Linguistic diversity was masked in the guise of linguistic multiculturalism and everyone had the right to practice and remain in their cultural spheres. So if the Malays spoke Malay and the Chinese spoke Chinese etc, then they couldn’t work together, which was the point. It was in order to prevent the possibility of people of different ethnic backgrounds coming together. Which is a stark contrast with Canada and Australia, etc. 

FN: From a linguistic point of view, language is not something we learn – we learn how to use it. You know how to use the words. You know English when you can joke, you can lie, you can be sarcastic, that’s when you know a language. When a language dies it’s just words.. The impact of colonisation in SEAsia was colonial capitalism. Deny the knowledge. When colonisation prevents people from moving – they brought in passports and permits, our link to the world was gone. The SEAsian concept of the land and sea is not tied to what the Western notions of it are. We were mobile people! 

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FN: We live in an age of competing literacy and millennials are constantly getting bashed up all the time about it. The demands on young people are enormous, we expect so much of them. They have to be politically, socially, and philosophically literate, etc. In SEAsia I don’t feel a loss of language, but that the native languages are becoming irrelevant. The language of development is defined by capital and all these local languages – about nature, land and history – is monetised or rendered irrelevant. 

🔹DM: This is for Melanie – What are the difficulties of not translating your work? And for Waub – What is the status of indigenous languages in Canada now?🔹

WR: There are over 50 indigenous languages but many dialects, possibly hundreds, are on the brink of extinction. The cultural implications of that are huge. You can’t really understand yourself as an indigenous person without fully understanding your language. If you lose those explanations, you lose that bond with yourself.. By displacing the indigenous people they sever the ties with the land. The brutal policies to get rid of the languages are compounded by some of that disconnect. We can be proud and practice our culture, but if we can’t conduct them in our language, it’s not the same. We need to make the effort to reclaim them.

MM: My culture is my culture and it’s as simple as that. I could translate my work, but the depth won’t come through, like on a spiritual level – that just can’t be translated. It’s not really a stance on English or colonialism really, but more like standing for my culture and my children, and my grandchildren to know my language and to think and dream in it.


🔹Singaporean people don’t want to learn their mother tongue because it’s not “cool”. Lee Kuan Yew cancelled dialect programming despite encouraging bilingual education. What are your feelings on this?🔹

MM: Reparations are a difficult thing to do because there is no repairing lost languages. In terms of working towards maintaining and revitalising at risk languages, not fighting against these bilingual schools and supporting them, and creating these spaces for them to flourish is important. It’s also important to get the right people working in these communities, people who actually care and are not doing it for a paycheck, or who will be there only for a year and then leave and be done with it. It’s just a matter of people coming in and working together and supporting these school programmes and the 1st language programmes. Making funding easier to get helps too.

🔹This is not about the loss of knowledge, but of local languages – is there any hope that local knowledge can be recuperated to assist them in becoming living languages again? Also the younger generation are evolving with their own visual languages through gifs and emojis, how do you see the language you identify with evolving with this? And lastly, in regards to the creation of Creoles, what is your experience of them because they often have a bad rap for being seen as ‘improper’.🔹

FN: Well all languages are creoles basically. English is Latin and French, etc. But language has to be organic. I don’t want to see a museumisation of languages. Our knowledge ecosystems are dying! It’s no different to the 19th century because companies are wiping out radical views that can help us understand everything, by capitalism with English. It’s peanuts for them to invest millions and open a school, but it’s nothing because they take that in on an hourly basis. How is preservation different from reservation? It’s museumisation. How can we make these languages alive? Singlish is organic because it’s alive, because people use it. The point is to get it used because if you don’t it dies. We live through language. You sit on a chair because it’s a concept, otherwise it’s just a thing. No amount of money will keep that language alive. It will be in a museum like an object.

WR: In Ojibwe you hear a lot of English words, like there’s no word for mall. I would listen for the English words with my grandparents and get the gist of what they were saying. Adapting languages help keep them alive. We do pick and choose the words we need to keep our languages alive. 

MM: Many languages in Australia are Creoles. The younger generations of kids who speak my language are translating English sentences, so although the grammar doesn’t make sense, it’s fun, it’s experimentation. It’s evolving and will change over time but it’s good to maintain the basics. That there’s still a backbone, something there that still remains. If need be, we can change things but at least it’s still authentic in itself and something that’s been carried on and continued.. With regards to the youth, I think that speaking it and using it helps. I try to perform in my language so the younger generation can hear it being used. There’s this rapper called Baker Boy, who has a big following and it’s so positive because he’s showing the world that we can speak our language in more than just a traditional setting. We can incorporate all these things in maintaining our language. 

OKIE DOKIE! THAT’S ALL FOR THIS TALK!! Stay tuned for more posts like this one from the other talks I went to during the 2019 SG Writers Festival!


One thought on “[IRL Adventures] SWF19: Language and the Colony

“Even now I'm not really sure which parts of myself are real and which parts are things I've gotten from books.” - [Beatrice Sparks] Go Ask Alice 🍃☕

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