Tri-lingual Learning: Bahasa Jahai, Bahasa Malaysia and English

BRAINetwork and the Orang Asli of Kampung Chuweh have been working together over the past few weeks to create a 1 to 10 counting chart. A counting chart, a simple and basic enough idea, but with a difference. One that acknowledges and includes the village’s native tongue, the Jahai language. The counting chart is a tri-lingual chart, created using with pictures taken from the small village of Kampung Chuweh which is located along Lake Banding in the Belum-Temenggor Forest Complex.

The chart is unique, as many of the learning materials that we observed in the various forms of educational centres for Orang Asli are developed in English or Bahasa Malaysia. Given that the Jahai tribe only number just over 1000 people is most likely the reason for this but there are also other tribes which number in the 20 and 30,000’s, which don’t have learning materials in their own language.

The making of the chart coincides with the United Nation’s International Mother Language Day 2015, which falls on the 21st of February 2015. The theme of this year’s International Mother Language Day is “Inclusive Education through and with Language – Language Matters”, which is fitting with BRAINetwork’s belief in the need to incorporate Orang Asli’s indigenous languages in to their education.

Bahasa Jahai, left, Bahasa Malaysia, centre, English, right.

It’s predicted that between 50-90% of the 6,500 languages currently spoken across the world today will die out over the next hundred years. This should provide a real impetus for the government and those working with the Orang Asli to help document and preserve the language of Malaysia’s indigenous people and with it, their culture.

When we were creating our chart, we worked primarily with Gomba Bin Adik of Chuweh, though others in the village contributed as they discussed the correct spelling for each part of the chart. Discussion and much debate ensued as the villagers had never actually seen their language in written form before and so each spelling was scrutinized.

To create the chart we used the standard alphabet, applying the Bahasa Malaysia pronunciation, for e.g. “c” in Bahasa Malaysia sounds like “ch” in English and so ‘c’ in the Jahai language is also phonetically “ch” in English, in our interpretation of the Jahai language. Some of the spellings could be argued to be incorrect but we used what the native speakers believed to be their best interpretation/understanding of the spelling.for blog 3

While we were creating the material, we contacted a Swedish linguist by the name of Niclas Burenhult, currently an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Lund University, who previously performed research on the Jahai language. Niclas informed us that “Orang Asli languages are a challenge for the ordinary alphabet, since they maintain far more meaningful distinctions in their sound systems than both English and Malay do”. Essentially meaning that the modern English alphabet is too simplistic to fully detail the complex range of sounds entailed in Orang Asli languages. However, Niclas also recommend that we accommodate the “preferred practical orthography of native speakers” and so we did by using the standard alphabet, which was the only one the tribe knew and understood.Buluh

Nelson Mandela famously said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart“, and that rang true in our case. The more we attempted to learn the village’s language, the more they grew to us, and also the more they laughed at us and our attempted pronunciation.

We hope that this material can be disseminated and used in any pre-schools and schools with Jahai people. BRAINetwork also hope to build on this by developing materials for other Orang Asli tribes, such as the Temiar people in RPS Air Banun.

Thank you to the people of Chuweh who happily helped put this piece together and also to Ching Ching Chang for her assistance and input. Feel free to contact Gerard Dunleavy on if you would like a copy of the chart.


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