Tag Archive | language

Malaysian English – A Case of Inculturation


This clip is not only hilarious it should also serve as good material for studies of inculturation. ‘Get down’ of a car is a proper Chinese expression (下车), as in Chinese one does not get ‘out’ of a car but get ‘down’ from it. In fact the word ‘car’ means a whole range of vehicles – from the ancient chariot (马车, which literally means horse-car) to the automobile (汽车). So naturally, when a Malaysian Chinese thinks of getting out of the car, his Chinese mind directs him to the literal meaning in Chinese, which translates ‘get down’.

Of course this contextualised English is not to be considered as proper or standard English. However, it makes sense to Malaysian Chinese. In this case they hijack the language, break it down and ‘re-arrange’ it to express a meaning proper to the syntax of their mother tongue. In other words, the foreign language is modified to express the local concept, which produces the phrase ‘getting down from a car’.

Language is part of culture. When it is introduced to a community, it may come across lacking in expressing the meaning of what it intends in the ears of the locals. When the locals finally understood the meaning of a foreign word, the process of adopting and changing the way the language is used begins. So in this case once the local Malaysian got to understand what it means by ‘get’ and ‘down’, they naturally mapped it to their local language’s syntax and modify the English usage for their own use.

When the missionary arrives at a foreign land he will also face the same problem. What does it mean by ‘sacrifice’, ‘sin’, ‘atonement’, ‘kingdom’, etc? But once the locals grab hold of the meanings of these they will start using their own language or local expression to describe them. If they adopt the language which the missionary brought, they may substitute some of the words or their usage with their own expressions.

Recently one of my friends wrote about the ritual of kissing the communion table – of which is certainly strange to any Chinese Christians. This is because Chinese has no ‘kissing culture’. Furthermore if by ‘Christian’ here we mean the evangelicals, the issue of transubstantiation will certainly be raised. So how would an evangelical Chinese Christian to express his or her passion and love for Christ which is on par of the intimacy shown by those ‘high church’ brothers who kiss the communion table? Which body language can they use to substitute this act without losing the meaning of it?

So the case of the Malaysian English is similar to that of the inculturated practices of worship. Missionaries come with their cultural practices, of which the truth and the gospel are intertwined, but their practices may not make sense to the locals. Once the locals understand the message of the gospel, they will in turn develop their own ways of expressing those truths, and often this is done by modifying the practices brought in by the missionaries. Thus the ‘standard language’ is then replaced by a ‘local language’ of worship or ministry.

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