Sabah ethnic languages facing extinction?

Aug 3, 10 10:54am

Edi Tutun felt uneasy when two strangers paid him a surprise visit at his house in a remote village in Kota Marudu, in the northern district of Sabah.

However, when the uninvited guests introduced themselves with the help of a villager who spoke to Edi in their mother tongue, the Dusun Kimaragang language, Edi brightened up.

The duo turned out to be the ‘government people’ but their unannounced visit has nothing to do with government matters but merely to make a study on Edi’s ‘bahasa sukuan’ or ethnic language.

The two ‘visitors’ – Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka’s (DBP) Sabah Branch
Director Zubaidi Abbas and linguistic researcher Abd Nassir Said have actually travelled almost 200 km from the state capital to conduct a survey called ‘Jejak Etnik’ (Tracing Sabah’s ethnics).

The DBP officers later interviewed Edi, asking him about his proficiency in spoken and understanding of his mother tongue.

The Jejak Etnik is Sabah DBP’s first project of the kind and this special programme has brought Zubaidi and his team of researchers to many parts of Sabah, but the bulk of the study was concentrated at Kampung Landung Ayang Laut, Kudat, in the Sabah east coast.

Kampung Landung Ayang was especially chosen for its diverse ethnic
population where at least 35 dialects or sub-dialects were found to be the language of communication among its residents.

The ethnic groups residing in the village include Dusun, Bajau, Sungai, Bonggi, Brunei, Murut, Melayu Suluk and Kadayan.

According to Zubaidi, 3,978 respondents in Kampung Landung Ayang Laut were interviewed or responded by answering the questionnaires.

“We found out that the use of mother tongue as their language of
communication is on the decline, whereby about 2,007 or 52.5 per cent of the population were more proficient in Bahasa Melayu than in their ‘bahasa sukuan’.

“In terms of research objectives, it can be assumed that bahasa ibunda or mother tongue is not widely used in their daily communication at home as compared to Bahasa Melayu,” Zubaidi told Bernama.

He said from the 1,308 respondents among the Rungus ethnic group in Kampung Landung Ayang Laut, only 676 people within the age range of one to 19 years were still proficient in their mother tongue, while only 73 people out 240 respondents from the Ubian clan of the same age speak fluent Bahasa Ubian.

“Overall, we have interviewed about 5,779 respondents, including 1,313 people who have responded by returning the questionaires sent to them.

“In some places, we sought the help of the village head,the district
office and the Kudat Native Court to deliver the forms and conduct the interviews,” he said.

“Our initial study showed that there was indeed a valid concern as far as extinction of ethnic dialects in Sabah is concerned.

“This is because the younger generation below the age of 30 tend to be more comfortable speaking in Bahasa Melayu rather than in their respective ethnic languages,” he said.

Zubaidi said, for an ethnic language to survive it needs at least 100,000 people to practice the language and if the number is less than that, the language is considered as ‘dying’.

He cited the Begahak ethnic group residing in Mukim Tungku, Lahad
Datu, as a classic example of a ‘dying bahasa sukuan’ because it was found out that only about 2,000 people of the ethnic group speak the Begahak language.

The Tobilung ethnic community at Kampung Mengaris in Kota Marudu is also said to be losing their proficiency in their mother tongue, he said.

He said the reasons behind the declining proficiency in the usage of mother tongue among the ethnic groups in Sabah includes mixed marriages involving different ethnicities.

For example, if the husband is a Dusun and his wife a Sungei, the Bahasa Melayu will be the dominant language of communication at home, thus effectively denying’ their children’s chances of practicing their mother tongue.

“Another glaring factor is through migration. The moment an ethnic group migrate, their language of communication will be very much influenced by the new community or the environment,” he said.

The Sabah DBP Branch director said “Jejak Etnik” was started six month ago, and was supposed to be a five-year programme but had to be ‘shelved’ for the time being due to limited funds.

The whole idea of the programme is to map out ethnic languages in Sabah, as well as to find out how the mother tongue is being used as a language of communication at home among the ethnic races.

“We also want to know what are the locals’ perception on Bahasa Melayu as a national language, compared to ethnic languages,” he said.

Zubaidi said DBP’s data compilation of ethnic languages in Sabah has so far collected about 3,100 words comprising the Bajau, Bisaya, KadazanDusun, Irranun and Murut languages.

“These ethnic words have been entered into a public database as well as in the DBP’s dictionary, glossary and registered words”.

Zubaidi, quoting Sabah Cultural Board’s latest study, said there are 35 ethnic and 215 sub-ethnic groups in Sabah.

On another matter, Zubaidi said the state government should consider establishing a special department where its officers are specially tasked to do intensive research and documentation of the ethnic languages in Sabah.

“The irony is, the survival of some of the ‘bahasa sukuan’ is now under the threat of extinction. It will be very difficult to trace the language if that happens,” he said.

– Bernama

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