KKristang_Main_header In learning Kristang, participants not only find a language, but friends and a wonderful community too

21 Nov 2016

Awakening Kristang

1) Tell us more about how you discovered Kristang and how it led to the Kodrah Kristang initiative.
 
I run a linguistics magazine known as Unravel which aims to make language and linguistics issues accessible to non-specialists. I first encountered Kristang while doing research for a special feature last January, when we decided to profile some of the endangered languages of the region. Prior to that, I had no idea the language existed, even though my mum's family is of Portuguese-Eurasian descent.
 
I found out that the language was still being spoken in Malacca, and we went up to meet with Joan Margaret Marbeck, DiGi’s Kristang poet of Malacca, who has written almost all of the very small number of books and collections of texts in Kristang; Sara Santa Maria, the main teacher of Kristang in the Portuguese Settlement in Malacca; and Dr Stefanie Pillai, Professor and now Dean at the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics at the University of Malaya and a researcher working with the community in Malacca. All of them were working to preserve and revitalize the language in their own ways, and I was really very inspired by what they were doing. We came back determined to find speakers of the language here who were still alive, and to see what we could do in Singapore.
 
I've always been a relatively quick language learner, and so I was able to pick up the language from Joan's books and materials, a dictionary and grammar produced by another researcher, Dr Alan Baxter, and by speaking to and practicing with the remaining speakers of the language here in Singapore. I then ran a pilot course called Korsang di Kristang ('Heart of Kristang') teaching the language to some of my friends in my house, before we decided to start a public course in March of this year, which was Kodrah.

2) As a young Eurasian, why do you think it is important to embark on such efforts?
 
I'm a linguistics major and I hate seeing languages die or fall asleep for lack of speakers. But I think as time went on I discovered a pride and joy in this language. At home, we never really identified much with either my Eurasian heritage (my mom's side) or my hinese/Hakka/Peranakan heritage (my dad's) — we did and still do exclusively speak English, even with my grandparents. But I think as time went on I discovered a pride and joy in this language that I never thought I would ever discover — as someone of Portuguese-Eurasian descent, and as a Singaporean. Not all Eurasians have Portuguese ancestry, and so not all of them embrace Kristang as their heritage, but for the first time I felt that I had something that gave me a solid link to my past in a way that English and Mandarin did not.
 
With language revitalization, you're not just bringing back a bunch of words — you're bringing back a community that speaks that language, traditions and even a different worldview. That's an immense responsibility because there are still Singaporeans who care about that way of life like Bernard Mesenas, our 78-years-young (his own wording!) Kristang language consultant. Once I understood that, I just could not let Kristang fade away.
 
3) You wrote Kaminyu di Kodramintu – a 30-year-old Kristang Revitalization Plan for Kristang from now to 2045. Can you tell us more about it?

Language revitalisation is a long, arduous and tremendously demanding process. It's a multi-generational effort, and it doesn't happen in months or years; similar efforts for Hebrew, Hawaiian and Maori took decades to bear fruit. In all of these cases, these languages became endangered because intergenerational transmission — the passing on of the language from parents to children — ceased. So, what you want to do is restart that process of intergenerational transmission, and especially get children and young people interested in using the language again.
 
Right now, the most pressing need is generating enough awareness such that people care enough to learn Kristang and protect it from extinction. In just six months, our efforts have been tremendously successful — we've almost doubled the number of speakers of Kristang in Singapore, and we hope to further build on this through our Kristang Language Festival next May to vastly increase awareness of Kristang's existence. Our aim is to then encourage this growing pool of new, fluent but non-native speakers to pass it on to their children and develop a proper teacher training syllabus and series of programmes for Kristang, such that there is some sort of more formal support for the language.

In learning Kristang, participants not only find a language, but friends and a wonderful community too

Linguistics undergraduate Kevin Martens Wong used to teach Kristang to friends in his house before starting a public course in March this year

Kevin introduces a worksheet on time in Kristang

Kodrah learners complete an activity that involves them comparing each other's schedules and finding a time to meet

Kevin’s grandmother, Maureen Martens and Alison Schooling work together to complete the same activity

4) The response to Kodrah has been amazing, with over 130 people registered for class, and your monthly videos gaining over 11,000 views in just six months. How do you plan to sustain this endeavour?

In terms of the initiative, four of the current learners who just finished the first round of classes are very interested in becoming teachers, so I don’t think we’re going to have a manpower issue moving forward — it’s really encouraging that we have this kind of support, and I hope the number of people interested in teaching Kristang continues to grow.

I’m not sure about what we’re going to do for funding long-term, but for now, all our stuff is free and online, which means that its accessible to everyone in the community. I believe very strongly in this because one, money throws up barriers to entry that a lot of people can't circumvent, and two, most of us aren't experts in what we're doing, so it would be pretty unfair to charge money anyway. However, I think we've also gotten a lot of community support not only because everything is open to everyone, but precisely because the fact that it’s free shows that we are totally not in it for the money, and that we really do care about this language beyond monetary reasons.
 
Personally, what keeps me going is the amazing community that has grown up around these classes. It's age-indifferent (our youngest learner is 22 and our oldest 81) and totally race-, religion- and basically background indifferent. Even my grandparents are in the class. And so sessions are always very fun, because everyone always has something to learn from someone else.
 
5) What hopes do you have for Kodrah Kristang?
 
Well, I hope that Kristang itself becomes a healthy language again! I may not be lucky enough to live to see that happen (I'll be 53 in 2045, sigh) but it's something to look forward to and to continue to strive for. I'd say it's going to be a long, difficult and exhausting journey, and it definitely already has been at points, but it's been a really amazing and fulfilling one as well, with this new Kristang-speaking community, and I hope that awareness about Kristang will only continue to grow as we keep reawakening the language and bringing it ever closer to revival. Bong fortuna, Kristang!

I'm also a linguist at heart, and I hope that all Singaporeans will come to appreciate the uniqueness and value of not just Kristang, but our other, many amazing languages, many of which have also acquired a very distinctly Singaporean flavor here. Our intangible heritage hasn't been something that has received very much attention until recently, and I hope that we continue to recognise how important it is that we protect it.

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