Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Language Shift of Banjarese in Sungai Manik, Perak


There are many causes of language shift in a community. According to Ignace (1998), some of the causes are the shrinking of a minority group (perhaps due to migration and intermarriage), education and social mobility, and lack of planning of the particular language.

In Malaysia, under Malay ethnic group, one of the sub-ethnic groups is Banjar. There are approximately 221,000 of Banjar population in Malaysia (Joshua Project, 2000). They are a minority group in Malaysia and they scatter all over the peninsula from Penang to Tawau, Sabah (Mohd Salleh, 2003).

The Banjar is an interesting group to study because they belong to two different communities. First, they belong to the minority Banjar community, by their common Banjarese and land of origin. Second, they belong to the Malay community, under the umbrella of Malay ethnic group, the native of South-east Asia. In Malaysia, because the Banjar are scattered and living within the majority groups (mainly the Malays), they have assimilated into the mainstream community. In come cases, it is total assimilation where they do not speak Banjarese anymore and lead their life as the Malay (Muhammad Salleh, 1998).


The aim of the research is to observe and analyse if the language shift or language maintenance phenomenon takes place in the bilingual Banjar community in Sungai Manik, Perak Darul Ridzuan. If such is taking place, the research will also try to find reasons to explain the phenomenon.


Being a small scale research, this study focuses only on a bilingual Banjar family in Sungai Manik. The exact time of the migration of first generation of the family to Malaya cannot be verified. However, the oldest member of the family (68 years old; will be referred to as OG1 henceforth) is the forth generation of their descendants. OG1 is the only person in the generation who is still staying in Sungai Manik. Her husband has passed away in 1986. They had five children together; three of their children are working and residing in other parts of Malaysia, one (the oldest child; will be referred to as SG1 henceforth) who is married to a Javanese is residing not far from the house, and another (the third child; will be referred to as SG3 henceforth) is living in the family house with OG1.

SG1 and her husband have three children; the oldest (17 years old; will be referred to as TG1 henceforth) and the third (five years old; will be referred to as TG3 henceforth) are living with them, and the second (14 years old) are studying at a religious school in Chemor, Perak Darul Ridzuan. SG1 and her two children frequent OG1’s residence almost every day, especially during the day for a chat with OG1 and SG3. TG3 is particularly fond of OG1 and SG3 and sometimes visits the residence on his own and stays over night.

According to Denzin (1978, cited in Patton, 1990), in collecting data in a research, no single method is adequate to any problem “because each method reveals different aspects of empirical reality, multiple methods of observations must be employed.” Thus, the researcher decided to use two methods to gather data. The methods are observations and interviews. In order to collect data for the research, the researcher went to the respondents’ residence (OG1 and SG3) to observe and interview all the respondents. It was possible to observe all the respondents in one setting because they life very with near one another. However, the respondents did not allow their conversations or the interviews to be recorded because they were not comfortable with it. Therefore, the researcher stayed at OG1’s residence for three days to observe and take down notes of their conversations. The researcher had made it clear beforehand the purpose of the study and the reasons why observation and interview were carried out.


Sungai Manik, Perak Darul Ridzuan covers quite a large area, with population estimated to be about 3500 people (SMKSA School Data, 2003). The entire population is mainly made up of Malays, with very few Chinese in the area who are shop owners and run their business there. Sub-ethnic groups of Malay in the area include the Banjar, Javanese, Mendailing and Siamese. The population is mainly farmers, working in paddy plantation and palm oil estate.

From the interviews with the respondents, the researcher found that only OG1, SG1 and SG3 understand Banjarese and Malay completely. TG1 and TG3 have very limited command of the language and do not use it when conversing with other respondents.

OG1 is a Banjar who was married to another Banjar from the community. OG1 uses Banjarese with all her children, but being in a Malay community, she and her children also learned Malay. She has had a limited education, and has not stayed anywhere outside Sungai Manik. However, she occasionally visits her sister who is in Alor Star and her children who are in other parts of Malaysia. OG1 does mix around in the neighbourhood and goes to Quranic and religious classes held for the veterans by the religious teachers in the community. These classes are held in Malay, because it is a shared language amongst the different sub-ethnic groups.

In the duration of the observation, it was observed that OG1 used Banjarese to speak with her children, SG1 and SG3, and they responded in Banjarese. SG1 and SG3 were also observed to have used Banjarese and Malay when they communicate with each other. However, OG1, SG1 and SG3 used Malay when they were speaking to TG1 and TG3, and they responded in Malay. Sometimes OG1 would mix her sentences with Banjarese words (but SG1 and SG3 do not at all) and the children understood her nonetheless. However, OG1 did not use a full Banjarese sentence or that many Banjarese words with the children because she is aware that they do not know much Banjarese. Here, we can see that OG1 was using a communicative strategy called codeswitching.

The term codeswitching in this research is to mean the use of two languages, in this case, Malay and Banjarese. According to David (2003), codeswitching can be viewed as a communicative strategy use in the process of language shift. It is an achievement strategy to get meaning across to the listener, perhaps due to differences in proficiency between members of the same community. This is perhaps true in the case of OG1 and her grandchildren. However, in the case of the sisters (SG1 and SG3), they said they codeswitch because they are “too lazy” to think for words when they talk. When they talk, they think of what they want to say and then say it with whatever words that come to their minds, whether they are in Malay or Banjarese.

The following are some examples of codeswitches in the data. Malay is in italics and Banjarese are underlined. In Example A, in the conversation between the sisters, SG3 asked her sister (SG1) to clean up the dining table. After a while, she (SG3) asked her again if she had cleaned it.

Example A:

SG3 Along, dah pulit meja tu? Kadak bida pun, aku tengok. (Along, have you cleaned the table? It doesn’t look any different to me.)
SG1 Sudah la.

OG1 uses the codeswitching strategy is when talking to her grandchildren because they are not proficient in Banjarese. In Example B, all the respondents were having lunch at OG1’s residence. Being very young, TG3’s table manners still need guidance. He took some food in the dish plate with his hands and OG1 scolded him for that.

Example B:

TG3 Tok, Muiz nak ni. (Tok, I want some of this.)
OG1 Eh! Jangan jumput dengan tangan! Guna sudu ni. Tangan kamu tu rigat. (Do not pick it with your hand. Use the spoon. Your hand is dirty.


5.1 Intermarriage 

There are several possible reasons for language shift in the family and also in the community. One of the most important reasons is intermarriage. According to David and Nambiar (2003), intermarriage can be a negative influence in the retention of the mother tongue of the parents. In the family, the children, TG1 and TG3, use only Malay to communicate with OG1, SG1 and SG3. Although sometimes OG1 would use several Banjarese words when she talks to them, they always respond in full Malay sentences. This could be because Malay is their mother tongue, the language being spoken at home by their parents. Here, Malay is used in SG2’s family because it is a shared language with the father who is a Javanese. He does not speak Banjarese, and nor does she speak Javanese. Thus, Malay is chosen for communication.

5.2 Malay as Language of Opportunity

Another possible cause for language shift is opportunities which come with Malay. Malay is seen as a language of opportunity in Malaysia because it is the national language, while Banjarese, according to the respondents, is a “dead-end” language. Ridler and Pons-Ridler (1984) suggested that the choice of language reflects the working of the market. People choose a language that will benefit them in a long run. In addition to that, Schiffman (1998) stated that language shift in the minority group is inevitable when the language of the minority is seen as a language which does not help the speakers to improve their socio-economy and social mobility. Thus, the minority group will shift to the dominant language.

5.3 Migration

Other than that, migration is also another reason why language shift is taking place in the community. Grimes (2001) noted that sociolinguists agree that migration, either voluntary or forced, is a cause of language shift. When the members of a community migrate, the remaining community shrinks in size and thus, they are less likely to be able to maintain their language. As we can see in the family, three of OG1’s children are working and residing outside Sungai Manik. The same is happening to other families as well. This could be due to more employment opportunities with better salary in urban areas than in Sungai Manik. With education and wanting to improve their standard of living, some of the Banjar here (as well as other sub-ethnic groups) have migrated mainly to Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur and as far as Johor Bahru to look for employment.

5.4 Little Difference between Lifestyle, Custom and Culture

Another possible cause of language shift in the family and community is because there is very little difference in terms of lifestyle, custom and culture between the Banjar and Malay. The Banjar feel that they belong in their community and they feel almost as comfortable as in a Malay community. The respondents informed the researcher that they do not feel and have not been treated like an outsider when they are in a Malay group of friends. Although Banjarese is still their “intimate language”, the use of Malay does not make them feel “less” Banjar. Therefore, we can see that because the respondents are comfortable using Malay, do not see the need to maintain and use Banjarese, and do not feel their culture and custom are threatened by using Malay. As a result they tend to use more Malay in their family and community.

5.5 The National Education policy

The National Education policy could also be a reason for language shift in the Banjar community. According to Grimes (2001), the desire to build a nation by a people has contributed to language shift in several countries, although it does not cause universal shift of the language. This is because the minor sub-ethnic languages are not given attention at all in education policies drawn up by the government. In the case of the Banjar, they are educated in government schools with Malay being the medium of instruction. Thus, they are more familiar with Malay because it is the language they use outside their home. Banjarese is used only at home with their parent and siblings.

5.6 Modernization

In the area of Sungai Manik, modernization could also be a reason for language shift. Grimes (2001) noted that modernization, among other things, is a factor which accompanies language shift. In Sungai Manik, paddy plantation is being modernized and systematized by the state government to improve the production and quality of rice in the area. Therefore, some officers are posted there to train the locals on how to manage their rice plots, how to use the machines, the management of irrigation and so on. As modernization takes place, the people in the area also work together to ensure everyone benefits from the modernization and changes. Thus, they communicate using Malay as the lingua franca in the area. The frequent use of the language makes it more dominant than other sub-ethnic languages.


From the small family being studied, we can see that the third generation especially, has shifted from Banjarese to Malay. Although the second generation is fluent in the language and uses it at home with the first generation and their siblings, the third generation seems to have very limited command in the language.


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