Come Let’s Learn Malacca Portuguese: Engaging Communities in Language Revitalisation Efforts

The University of Malaya worked with the Malacca Portuguese-Eurasian Association to produce a book to learn Malacca Portuguese, an endangered language in Malaysia. This is part of the ongoing efforts to revitalise this endangered language.

Team members from UM and MPEA during one of their workshops for the Beng Prende Portugues Malaká (Papiá Cristang) book.

Bong pamiang! Já cumi? (Good morning! Have you eaten?)

Muitu mérse! (Thank you very much!)

These are expressions that can still be heard at the Portuguese Settlement, Malacca, a village situated over 145 km south of the capital, Kuala Lumpur. It is quite remarkable that after more than 350 years since the withdrawal of the Portuguese from Malaysia, a creolised variety of Portuguese still survives. It is a language that emerged from the contact between Portuguese and local languages, drawing its vocabulary largely from Portuguese but with influences from other local languages.

Today, Malacca Portuguese, also known as Papiá Cristang, is considered as an endangered language in UNESCO’s Red Book of Endangered Languages. Fieldwork by various scholars also indicates that most of the fluent speakers of Malacca Portuguese in the Portuguese Settlement and elsewhere in Malaysia, are now over 40 years of age. To ensure that Malacca Portuguese does not die out in Malaysia, community-based efforts have been ongoing. The main motivation for this is the awareness that language loss can lead to a loss of cultural heritage and community identity. Thus, the survival of this language is a pressing concern for the Portuguese-Eurasian community in Malaysia.

One of the most recent endeavours is a book, Beng Prende Portugues Malaká (Papiá Cristang) – Come Let’s Learn Portugues Malaká (Papiá Cristang). The book is a collaborative project between the University of Malaya and the Malacca Portuguese-Eurasian Association (MPEA). The project headed by Professor Dr. Stefanie Pillai was funded by a community engagement grant from UMCares. This grant focus on knowledge sharing between academics and communities, and on making resarch findings relevant to communities. Other members of the team were Michael Singho, Philomena Singho, Sara Santa Maria, Dolores Pinto, Adriana Phillip and Angela Kajita.

The book is a much-needed resource to teach and learn the language, whether in classroom context or for self-learning. Although materials on Malacca Portuguese have previously been published, there have been no systematic resource to facilitate the teaching and learning of the language. The purpose of this revitalisation and community engagement effort is to encourage the teaching and learning of Malacca Portuguese not only in the Portuguese Settlement. It is also a self-learning toll for those who want to refresh their knowledge of Malacca Portuguese or those who want to learn it from scratch.

The team that worked on Beng Prende Portugues Malaká (Papiá Cristang) comprised native speakers of Malacca Portuguese, and linguists and language teachers from the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics. Members of the team went through a rigorous process to develop the book. A series of workshops were held to discuss and decide on the content of the book. This included decisions about the themes and language input, e.g. spelling conventions, vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. The book is made up of eight lessons or ‘lisang’. The lessons are based on common themes such as greetings, family, food, festivals, parts of the body, time and location. The book contains exercises and an answer key for users to refer to. It also highlights points of grammatical structure, vocabulary and pronunciation, where relevant. Malacca Portuguese is a language that uses many indirect references in conversations, and thus, has many colourful figurative expressions. Some of these are presented in the book. For example,
- When you order more food than you can eat, you are said to have olu grandi bariga kininu (big eyes small stomach).
- A person without humour is said to be chuma aros seng sal (like rice without salt).

The book incorporates cultural aspects of the community like traditional songs such as Jingkli Noná Bunitu Siara Siuris, folktales like Linguada cum Bombelik (about two types of fish), and Diabu cum Braga (the Devil with the shackles), as well as information about festivals (e.g. Intrudu, Festa San Pedro and Festa San Juang) and typical Portuguese-Eurasian food. This way, not only do users get to learn Malacca Portuguese, but they also learn about the cultural practices of the community. A spelling and pronunciation guide, and a Malacca Portuguese-English glossary are also included in the book.

Professor Pillai is a strong advocate of engaging the community in language research, documentation and revitalisation efforts. According to her, there needs to be a move from the typical “grab-and-go” practice by many researchers and documenters. In this technique, data are collected, papers are written and published, and audio and video materials are published. The community that provided the information and data often gets nothing in return least of all access to these outputs. She believes that language researchers, especially those working on endangered languages, have an obligation to engage with communities to see how they can assist with language revitalisation efforts. This involves input and support from communities, as well as knowledge sharing and capacity building. Professor Pillai also stresses on the need for such revitalisation efforts to be sustainable. These will enable community members to carry out and continue with these efforts. She cautions, however, that any such efforts must be in collaboration with, and benefit, these communities. She is hopeful that more researchers will adopt a during- and post-research “community-engagement approach” in their work.

More information can be obtained from:

(1) Professor Dr. Stefanie Shamila Pillai
Faculty of Languages & Linguistics
University of Malaya, 50603 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
[email protected]

(2) Adriana Phillip
Faculty of Languages & Linguistics
University of Malaya, 50603 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
[email protected]

Pic 2.

Children at the Portuguese Settlement learning Malacca Portuguese using Beng Prende Portugues Malaká (Papiá Cristang).

Pic 3.

Children reading a story from Beng Prende Portugues Malaká (Papiá Cristang) during the book launch at the Portuguese Settlement in February 2017.

Published: 02 May 2017


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Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research & Innovation) 8th Floor, Chancellery University of Malaya 50603 Kuala Lumpur MALAYSIA

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1. Singho, M. G., Singho, P. A., Santa Maria, S. F., Pinto, D., Pillai, S., Kajita, A., & Phillip, A. (2016). Beng prende Portugues Malaká (Papiá Cristang) – Come let’s learn Portugues Malaká (Papiá Cristang). Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press. 2. Pillai, S., Chan, M.E. & Baxter, A.N, (2015). Vowels in Malacca Portuguese Creole. Research in Language 13(3), 248-265. 3. Pillai, S, Phillip, A., Soh, W.-Y. (Forthcoming). Revitalising Malacca Portuguese Creole. In P. P. Trifonas, T. & Aravossitas (Eds.), Springer International Handbooks of Education. Handbook of Research and Practice in Heritage Language Education. 4. Pillai, S., Soh, W.-Y., & Kajita, A. S. (2014). Family language policy and heritage language maintenance of Malacca Portuguese Creole. Language & Communication, 37, 75–85. 5. Pillai, S., Soh, W.-Y., & Yusuf, Y. Q. (2015). Perceptions about one’s heritage language: The case of the Acehnese in Kampung Aceh and Malacca Portuguese-Eurasians in the Portuguese Settlement in Malaysia. KEMANUSIAAN The Asian Journal of Humanities, 22(2), 67–92.