Academic journal article Borneo Research Bulletin

The Impact of School-Based Language Learning on Culture, Heritage and Identity among the Rungus of Sabah

Academic journal article Borneo Research Bulletin

The Impact of School-Based Language Learning on Culture, Heritage and Identity among the Rungus of Sabah

Article excerpt

The decimation of languages has been well documented in recent years. This paper examines the possible impacts educational policies--regarding language learning--may be having on the language, heritage and cultural practices of the Rungus, an indigenous group of Bornean Malaysia (bearing in mind the Rungus are not a homogenous group in themselves, but, rather, made up of various language subgroups). It explores the contradictions, conflicts, and confusions that exist for Rungus children in a one-size-fits-all national education system, and questions whether there is a link between the absence of indigenous languages in schools (in favor of national and foreign languages under Satu Malaysia policies) and the claimed endangerment of the Rungus language. Finally, it aims to highlight the need for engaging and empowering the Rungus themselves in further research and advocacy work to take on the challenging role of retaining and protecting their culture and language, not for tourism or financial purposes, but to pass on the important customs, values, and heritage to future generations.

Introduction

Language and culture are inextricably interlinked. As globalization influences the languages used by communities, so culture changes within them. Over the past few decades, endangered languages have received increasing scholarly attention in both publications (see Hale et al. 1992) and conferences (e.g. Paris 1989), leading to a Universal Declaration of Language Rights that "ensures the right to use the mother tongue in official situations, and to learn well both the mother tongue and the official language (or one of them) of the country of residence" (Phillipson 1992:96). The Rungus are an indigenous people who traditionally resided in the northernmost region of Borneo, around the Kudat peninsula and the surrounding Marudu Bay in present-day Sabah. Anthropologists and linguists have warned that the language and culture of the Rungus have been continuously eroded by both colonial and post-colonial political and economic policies (Appell 2000, 2005), with Rungus now claimed to be an endangered language (Florey, 2010). This may come as no surprise as linguists argue that many of the world's languages will vanish by the end of this century (Hale et al. 1992; Mackay 2003), but it is by no means inevitable. Change, however, is inevitable, so enquiry is essential and the Rungus themselves need to be both at the heart of planning and center of discussions concerning the fate of their culture and language.

The Rungus have witnessed many influences on their culture: the British arriving on their shores in 1881 through Japanese occupation in WWII, and the modern-day sweeping influence of globalization and technology. Their homeland environment is now unrecognizable from its original condition. Many important animal and plant species are forever lost due to widespread creation of roads and plantations. Traditional beliefs and sacred areas, with their roots bound in the importance of connection to the local environment, have been replaced by modern global religions, and people are abandoning traditional longhouse living for modern homes, affecting the way people view "community." Change brings both positive and negative effects, the question broached here is whether the Rungus are well informed and active participants of the process of change, or mere recipients of it.

The survival of indigenous groups is a hugely political subject, and it is the educational policy-making aspect--specifically, looking at the impacts of language learning--under examination in this paper. Phillipson and Skutnabb-Kangas (1996) offer two options for educational language policy: a diffusion-of-English paradigm and an ecology-of-language paradigm. The first is characterized by triumphant capitalism, its science and technology, and a monolingual view of modernization and internationalization. By contrast, the ecology-of-language paradigm involves building on linguistic diversity worldwide, promoting multilingualism and foreign language learning, and granting linguistic rights to speakers of all languages (Phillipson and Skutnabb-Kangas 1996:429). …

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