Sunday, 9 November 2014

My Language and Culture - An Analysis

Hello Internet. I know I have been absent for quite a while, so I want to make it up by posting this really in-depth piece of writing about - you guessed it - languages. I know I seem overly obsessed with this, but I suppose it's part of who I am. :P Anyway I wrote this as part of an IB English assignment so I try to explain as much as I could to answer the given question. Without further ado, here we go:

Question: How does your language reflect your culture?

“Referring to your language bank, interviews, notes and knowledge gained thus far through studying language in a cultural context, write a 500+ essay explaining how your language (in all its forms) reflects your own personal culture (which may be a mixture of many different cultures).”

"My language is an inseparable part of who I am. It is a complex reflection of all the different cultures and experiences I went through for the past sixteen years." (Courtesy of

My language is an inseparable part of who I am. It is a complex reflection of all the different cultures and experiences I went through for the past sixteen years.. To better understand how my language works, I need to first give a brief description of which cultures I identify with and where I have been. I usually identify myself as a Muslim, Malay and Malaysian teenage expatriate living in Egypt but I feel like I can identify with so many more cultures. I have lived in Malaysia for the first eight years of my life (in different regions), moved to Oman and resided there for six years, returned to Malaysia to live near the capital city in an international boarding school for almost three years. I believe with so much interaction between people from different countries, backgrounds and communities, that listing all the cultures I associate with is near-impossible.

My language use differs as I cross into different communities with different cultural backgrounds. This happens every day where I constantly rotate from being in an internationalised British-oriented school community to a Malay familial community and vice versa. Back at home, Malay would be my only spoken language, and I would strictly keep it that way. I developed a principle of ‘language purism’ when I speak to my parents and siblings, although I am free to speak English if I wish. This is a unique characteristic of my identity because I do this to preserve my Malay cultural identity while living abroad. I have not had any formal Malay language education for a very long time and the only way to keep it alive within the family, in my opinion, is by restricting the use of ‘invasive’ English which erode the knowledge of Malay among my siblings.

" Malay culture, ...parents would be treated with far greater reverence due to their noble position..." 

The way I use Malay at home reflects the cultural norms and expectations of those in my homeland. For example I would use the more ‘polite’ form of pronoun I (‘saya’) compared to highly informal ‘aku’ which I use among my Malaysian teenage friends. This shows the level of social hierarchy in Malay culture, where parents would be treated with far greater reverence due to their noble position as guardians and this was shaped mainly by the Islamic principles and East Asian philosophy.

Sometimes this hierarchical feature from my native Malay culture transcends into my speech in the English language at school. Although there are no special pronouns to differentiate hierarchy levels, I tend to be extra polite and careful when speaking to teachers whether in class or outside of class. In Malay and East Asian cultures, teachers are the carriers of knowledge which bring future success in adult life. I minimise the use of teenage-socialect lexicon when speaking to adults due to this. I think very carefully before I speak to ensure what I say will not come across as offensive, rude or irrelevant, and this applies in to most people I interact with. I utilise a mature, articulate and confident voice to show that I am striving to be a positive, good-natured person who is emphatic towards other people around him.

"In addition to Malay culture, I also relate myself to the wider East Asian culture as a whole." (Courtesy of

In addition to Malay culture, I also relate myself to the wider East Asian culture as a whole. I have a diverse background where I can trace my ancestry to Java, Sumatra and Riau Islands in Indonesia, Singapore and even as far as Sri Lanka and China. Because of this, I developed a sense of ‘pan-Asian-ness’ in my linguistic identity. Often when something unexpected happens, I would exclaim “哎呀!” or “Aiyah!”, originally from Mandarin Chinese. In Malay, this feature is more apparent since it is already an Asian language. I noticed that this feature occurs far more frequently when I am around fellow Malaysians when I speak Malay or Malaysian English dialect. For example, quite often I end sentences with “lah” at the end when speaking Malay or Malaysian English, a commonly accepted habit adopted from Mandarin Chinese.

"NCBIS is a wonderful example of a developed internationalised expatriate-oriented culture which I enjoy to be a part of." (Courtesy of

In NCBIS, my primary language is English, while Arabic plays a secondary role as a foreign language. NCBIS is a wonderful example of a developed internationalised expatriate-oriented culture which I enjoy to be a part of. Expatriatism played a major role in shaping my language abilities, especially in the English language. If I had not moved abroad at the age of eight, I would have never had the privilege of learning the English language to such a high level of proficiency. As I grew up in this kind of culture dominated by Western cultures and people, I developed an open-minded approach to understanding the world around me. Now I can understand many ideas from both the Eastern (Asian) and Western perspectives. 

"I was taught the British standard of English..."

When I started learning English in an international school in Oman, I was taught the British standard of English. Due to the influence of the teachers at the time (who were from the UK mostly), I still consider the British Received Pronunciation as the best form of English to speak and utilise. I try my best to imitate the RP pronunciation and follow RP spellings when I speak English and considered the Malaysian English dialect (one with various infusions of Asian languages) as impure and inferior. However once I moved back to Malaysia to study, I became more accepting of the Malaysian English dialect and would employ it for comedic and practical purposes from time to time but doing this made my RP English deteriorate. Today, I am trying to recall my former RP accent as much as possible by interacting with native English speakers, copying their linguistic quirks and hopefully I will be able to speak flawless English indistinguishable from a native speaker. Doing this may seem like I am betraying my pride of being Malay and Asian but I am simply trying to benefit from the global prestige of the high-value of the English language today. I strongly believe that English will be the most important language for my career as an international journalist in the future.

An important aspect in my language use in English revolves around the notion of a popular teenage culture. I identify with this type of cultural community especially when around those who are around age, usually my peers from school. Teenage ‘sociolect’ is usually characterised as being more sophisticated in language use compared to children, but are more aloof in their usage of swear words, abbreviations of phrases, trendy inventive vocabulary and intentional broken grammar. This is often popularised and interlinked with slangs used by social media users in the Internet. This creates a sense of independent and fun environment among teenagers when they joke around and gossip among each other. It is also trendy because adults do not use it as much, and this gives a sense of youthfulness which teenagers often like to associate with.

"Teenage 'sociolect' is usually characterised as being more sophisticated in language use... often popularised and interlinked with slangs used by social media users..." (Courtesy of The Guardian)

In order to fit in with the rest of my peers, I myself adopted a large chunk of ‘cool’ words into my speaking style. I would say things like ‘bro’ or ‘dude’ when referring to a male friend, “Yo!” to get someone’s attention and “That’s cool” or ‘awesome’ when impressed with something. More examples could be found in my exercise book. When around my peers, I may throw in a few vulgar slang terms in a sentence to put emphasis on a certain fact I wish to make clear, for comedic effect, or just as an expression of strong emotional outbursts. For example, one time I said: “I hardly get p***ed off with anyone but when I do, you better watch out.”

"...Bismillah, or “In the name of Allah (God)..." (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Last but not least, I regularly utilise religious and liturgical language in daily life. I consider myself a religious practicing Muslim compared to others and I often use phrases and words which relate to things like prayer and belief. Almost all of the religious terminologies I use are from the Arabic language, the language of the Holy Quran. When I perform obligatory prayers five times a day called ‘Salah’, I would use exclusively Arabic when reciting the verses of Quran and when praising and glorifying the Almighty God. Many words from these prayers are also expressions which could be used in everyday situations. For example, I say Bismillah, or “In the name of Allah (God)” before eating or drinking something. This is similar to how Christians would say grace to thank God for the meal. Similarly when greeting other Muslims we are encouraged to use the greeting “As-salaamu ‘alaykum” meaning “Peace be upon you”. This greeting has been so ingrained into various Muslim cultures that it became part of the language, like Malay Among Muslim Malaysians, it is much more common to hear this Arabic greeting than the Malay equivalents of “Good morning” or “Hello”. In a nutshell, Arabic as a religious language plays a substantial part of my linguistic identity as a whole.

So far what I have explained here may seem overwhelming, but I had just barely scratched the surface of the complexity of my daily language. I had not even gone into my written or body language since it would simply take too long for me to write in one day. Fundamentally, language is so interlinked with culture that as an individual, you would manipulate language all the time in order to blend in to a culture and community without realising it, while unchanging some of it. I do the same wherever I go and without it, I can never truly express myself to others around me without it.


  1. This is really interesting! I've never really paid attention to my use of language before.. Makes me feel a hint of guilt for letting myself forget Bangla :( My languages aren't half as diverse as yours, but I do notice my accent changes depending on who I talk to :P If you happen to write an extension to this, give me a head's up, yeah?

    1. Thanks for your comment aspacewithin! Language is a very broad topic and explaining it will take a huge amount of effort and time. If you want a deeper insight to how I use language in my life, I guess you could read this post about how I use Malay in my life:
      In the mean time, I will consider writing a sequel to this analysis as I could delve deeper into the topic as well.