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Ethnic identity is the behaviors, beliefs, values, and norms that define a person as a member of a particular ethnic group. In Chapter 3, I discussed the multilingual situation of Singapore, whose government’s pro-Mandarin policy has resulted in a massive shift to Mandarin among speakers of different Chinese dialects such as Cantonese, Hakka, and Hokkien. Started in 1979, the Singaporean government’s “Speak Mandarin” campaign has been so successful that whereas only 0.1% of the country’s population spoke Mandarin as a mother tongue in 1965, the year Singapore became an independent republic, close to half of the population now use Mandarin at home (McKay & Bokhorst- Heng, 2008). This remarkable shift in language use is attributed to a widespread view among the different Chinese dialect groups that Mandarin is a unifying symbol of their ethnic identity.

In neighboring Malaysia, a negative attitude toward English-speaking Malays has resulted in particularly low levels of English proficiency among the ethnic Malays. Like Singapore, Malaysia is a multilingual, multiethnic country. Its population consists of 65% Malay, 26% Chinese, and 7.7% Indians (Rajadurai, 2010). Malay is the native language of most ethnic Malays and the national language, while English is widely regarded as a second language in the country. In addition to Malay and English, a number of Chinese dialects, Indian languages, and other minority languages are spoken in Malaysia. As a colonial language, English enjoyed a level of prestige that the other languages did not until Malay independence in 1957, when the Malay language became the official language and the medium of instruction at all levels of education.

Rajadurai (2010) observes that this shift in policy led to a gradual decline in English proficiency among Malaysians, particularly among the ethnic Malays. While the non-Malays have more or less retained their bi-/multilingual status, the Malays have become largely monolingual. Rajadurai (2010) attributes this uneven outcome in English proficiency to a general negative attitude among Malays toward English-speaking Malays. She notes that among the Malays, there is a widely held perception that English is “foreign, pagan, and, even, evil” and its speakers are “rude, snobbish, arrogant, un-Malay, and un-Islamic” (2010: 103). She contends that this prevailing negative attitude toward English prevents Malays in Malaysia from improving their English. Unlike the other ethnic groups in the country, she contends that the category “Malay” is associated with nonnegotiable linguistic, religious, and cultural loyalties—Malays are expected to speak Malay for participation, acceptance, and legitimacy in the Malay community.

The negative societal attitude toward English-speaking Malays drives some Malays to hide their knowledge of English. In another study of Malaysian identity, Kim (2003: 147) presents the following excerpt from her interview with

Soraya, a 25-year-old Malay woman, who lived in the U.S. from kindergarten through sixth grade:

But it’s quite embarrassing when you come back and you are a Malay and you don’t know how to speak Malay ... it’s embarrassing. I didn’t want to admit but somehow I knew I had to do it. Every time I spoke English,

I had the American accent and people would think that I showed off, so I... I tried to hide it, and so when I went to secondary school in Kedah,

I hid it all the more and I... I speak it less and less.

Azlina, another Malay participant in Kim’s (2003) study, reported that she uses English most of the time on her college campus but avoids using it among friends back home:

Because I don’t want to look like I’m trying to boast. You are not in the “In” group anymore. I try not to speak English. If you want to be part of a group, you have to follow the rules, right? Yea[h], unwritten rules.

(2003: 148)

But Azlina confessed that she sometimes deliberately used English to annoy her Malay friends who disapproved of her using English:

When people irritate me, I’ll change to English. And I don’t just speak English, I’ll speak with a little bit of slang. I know that when people irritate me, I use this as a form of shield. Even among my friends I’ll try my best to speak in very good English. Partly as a shield. To make a point, okay, pay attention to me.

(2003: 148)

Azlina commented that she finds Malaysians who speak English with a Western accent annoying. Therefore, when she is irritated and wants to annoy people who she knows resent Malays using English, she deliberately speaks English with a “put-on” British or American accent. Kim (2003) argues that this temporary shift in language draws negative attention to the speaker, resulting in her increased power over the audience. Azlina’s strategic use of English here cannot be explained by a simple correlation between the use of Malay with a Malay identity and the use of English with a Western identity. Rather, Azlina’s choice to temporarily mask (or unmask) English is determined by the specific social interaction.

For the ESL teacher in Malaysia, understanding the social realities of Malay learners of English is critically important. Given the prevailing negative attitude toward Malays who speak English, Rajadurai (2010) notes that for many students, the classroom may be the only place where any English use takes place. Given this insight, she argues that:

learning institutions need to redefine themselves as sites where students can experiment, make mistakes, and practice using the L2 without fear of being judged, scorned, or derided. At the same time, these third spaces must provide scaffolding to support students and help prepare them for life in the real world. Students need to be equipped with some degree of perseverance, tenacity, and the will to succeed and navigate their way successfully in the various communities to which they belong or aspire to belong.

(2010: 104)

Just as Malays who are trying to be accepted into Malay social groups might hide their knowledge of English, members of linguistic minority groups who want to be accepted as legitimate members of the mainstream group might hide their knowledge of their mother tongues. Shifting allegiance to the socially dominant language is a common pattern found among ethnic minority children as they try to come to terms with their minority status. This is the topic of the next section.

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