Revitalising Kristang: An interview with Stefanie Pillai

by on June 2, 2015

How do you go about revitalising a language, and what are some of the issues that one might face? What is it like working with an endangered language community?

Kevin Martens Wong spoke to Dr Stefanie Pillai, linguist and associate professor at the University of Malaya, who is currently documenting and trying to revitalise the Kristang language. Of Portuguese Eurasian (Kristang) descent herself, Dr Pillai has been heavily involved with the Portuguese community in Melaka, and in 2014, led a team sponsored by the University of Malaya to produce a CD of Kristang hymns and prayers.


How did you decide to study Kristang?

As a linguist, I’d always wanted to study it, but I was always getting caught up in my own research, so it was pretty hard at first. My research is actually on sounds—I don’t want to say I’m a phonetician, I’m more like a phony-tician (laughs)—but basically, I study sound. One of my students was doing her Masters, and she said, “for my Masters, can I look at the vowels of Kristang?” And I said, “yeah, that would be a great way to get into it”. So that’s how we started making the contacts and collecting data.

What was it like when you started doing fieldwork?

I’d never done anything like that before, never done any fieldwork—I’m like a Computer-Analyse-Spectrogram-Waveform-kinda person, okay? (laughs)—so this was a real challenge for me. So many new things to learn, like the language, and the culture. I applied to the SOAS Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP) too, and I had to go to SOAS to get trained as well, and again, that was like a real throw-you-in-the-field-with-the-recording-equipment-and-go-figure kind of situation. It’s so different from recording people in the lab. You’ve got chickens lah, motorbikes lah, God knows what, people shouting and screaming, everything that you can think of! So we had to figure out ways to do on-site recording, and also how to deal with people not turning up—because people have lives, you know, and you going there expecting people to turn up on time and stop life for you is silly. But you know, I’ve made the best of friends, and that’s like my second home, I would say. So it’s been good, and the nice thing is that I’ve also met people like Joan Marbeck, Professor Alan Baxter, Dr Mario Nunes: they all do a lot on Malacca Portuguese.

What has your experience of working with the Portuguese community in Melaka been like?

My angle is a little bit different in the sense that something that ELDP really emphasises is the whole notion of ethics and community participation. I realised that we can’t just go there, collect data, and walk off. With a community, especially when it’s a living or endangered language, we really need to be careful. This is someone else’s language, and as linguists, we need to be really careful about how we’re representing the language, and whether the community agrees as to how we’re representing the language. I don’t work without the community’s consent, and I always go back to them as my point of departure.

My aim is also to look at how whatever I do can be given back to the community. A lot of language maintenance studies have been done on Kristang, but nothing much has been going back to the community. The University of Malaya has this community engagement fund that invites researchers to put their research back into the community, and so now we have this CD of prayers and hymns that we produced in five months. It’s legal and the copyright was given to the Melaka Portuguese Eurasian Association so that the community can sell it.

Why did you decide to produce a CD of Kristang prayers?

There have been requests from the diasporic community, especially the older Eurasians in Australia and elsewhere and also from those in Malaysia saying that we all grew up praying in Kristang, but we’d forgotten how to, and we wanted to know how to say the “Our Father” and things like that again, for example. So we thought okay lah, let’s do it. We chose a CD because if it had just been a piece of paper or a book or something, people wouldn’t know how to pronounce words in the prayers.

What were some of the challenges you faced in producing this CD?

If you look at the spelling of the Kristang words in the inlay inside the CD, this is actually very different from how previous researchers have spelt Kristang. We had long debates within the CD team about this, because we realised that something as simple as spelling is so related to identity. Some people said that we had to spell it in a certain way, otherwise we would lose the Portuguese-ness of Kristang, but from the perspective of the younger generation and people learning the language, they thought it would be much easier to spell it phonemically, using ‘k’ for a /k/ sound instead of ‘c’ as Portuguese does, for example. So we had to come to some sort of compromise. From a practical point of view, some of it may not have made sense, but so much of it is tied up with identity and such, which are real issues we’re still debating. And as a linguist you can’t go in and force the issue, because there’s really no standardised spelling–although people have come up with Kristang dictionaries, the community has not come to a consensus regarding the spelling, and it’s really a work in progress.

For me, also, my data is coming directly from the Settlement, but obviously it’s being spoken in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and various other places, right? Different varieties have grown. Even within the Settlement you’ll hear things like, “oh, this one’s the high variety and this one’s the low variety”, but we haven’t actually got any linguistic analysis of that, which is something waiting to be done. You can’t move away from the social dimensions of language, really.

We’ve heard that there has been some controversy about what the language should be called. How do you feel about this?

You choose who you are. It is indeed a big controversy, but my contention is that you call yourself whatever you call yourself. Especially if you come from a mixed background, you know how difficult it is. We shift in and out of so many identities. Some people say if you call yourself ‘Portuguese’ you’re not really Portuguese, but what does it mean to be really Portuguese? As far as the people who call themselves that are concerned, they know that they’re not Portuguese, but they’re just talking about their heritage. And when they say that they speak Portuguese, they don’t mean they speak European Portuguese, they basically mean they speak Kristang. They’re saying that in a context where it would be understood that they mean they’re speaking Kristang. You speak all sorts of English, for example, and you still say you speak English, right, but it doesn’t mean you’re English.

Most of the people we interviewed, if we asked them what their native language or mother tongue is, they would say “Kristang”. Some would say Portuguese Kristang, but they wouldn’t say, like, “Creole”. We had debates about this as well, like “why are you calling us a creole language, or a creole community?” As linguists, we’re just using it to say what stage of language development Kristang is at, but “Creole” is definitely not one of the options people like. On paper, my grandmother would also be called “Serani”. Some people say why not use “Serani”? But the people of Portuguese descent want to have that Portuguese word there. They want to be known as “Portuguese”. So the naming of the language and the naming of the people is really important, and you cannot look at language issues in isolation–you’ve got to look at the whole historical and sociopolitical situation. And it’s really interesting to see all these things that you previously only read about in your sociolinguistics textbook coming alive.

What is the status of Kristang and English in the Portuguese Settlement in Melaka at present?

If you go into the Settlement, you can still hear Kristang being spoken, bur this is mainly among the older generation whereas the new generation, they’re more comfortable in English. Their brand of English though, I must say. If you spend more time there you’ll find that there’s a particular brand of English there that’s quite different from other Englishes in Malaysia, and that might be a throwback from Kristang, because Kristang is stressed, unlike Malaysian English and Malay, which don’t have lexical stress.

Does the English that is spoken there have Kristang words interspersed throughout?

There are, but it’s hard to tell, because a lot of English and Malay words have been Kristang-ised, and it’s hard to really say where one word belongs in some cases. But slowly the Kristang words are being taken over—things like the kinship terms for “auntie”, you mainly hear the English versions being used.

Asia Research News mentioned that you were working on an online Malacca Creole Portuguese dictionary, to have been released at the end of 2014. Why did you decide to embark on this project, given that there are at least two dictionaries of the language in print?

When we asked most of the community members about what Kristang resources they have, they said just bits and pieces. Whatever little is out there they can’t afford, and there’s no resource centre where they can go borrow stuff. So we thought that if it were online, it would be better, and if you wanted to add stuff, you could send the words to the administrator, and we could add on to the database in that way.

Why hasn’t the dictionary been published yet?

We’ve actually got most of the data, and several native Kristang speakers have been helping us, but setting up an online platform requires money, which is why we’re stuck. If we could get sponsors later on, that would be great, because we have videos of Festu San Pedro (Feast of St Peter), and Intredu (Shrove Tuesday), but because of funds, it’s on the backburner for now.

How do you hope to consolidate all the work that has been done for the community?

Dr Baxter has suggeted putting up an annotated bibliography of what’s been done so far. A lot of it is on the linguistics side and on the maintenance side, but now our focus is also on the community engagement side. Something that they can sell, and something they can use to promote their language—hence the CD. Hopefully, we can come up with a little textbook next that can help people learn the language. The dictionary is fine, but sometimes you want to know phrases, like how to wish someone “Happy birthday”, and the like. And I can’t keep bugging my informants about these things, so it’s definitely something I want as well (laughs).

Do you feel it’s been difficult pulling the community together to rejuvenate the language?

It’s sometimes a big challenge, but there’s been a lot more acceptance with regard to the CD, for example, because it’s coming from the community, and it’s being done for the community. There’ll always be community politics, and you can’t just walk into the community and do what you want. You need to go through a committee. They do have a committee, and I keep telling them, you can have advisors from the committee and from universities or whatever come in to evaluate proposals or visits, so that when people come and study the language, you have to ask them, “okay, so you’re going to spend time here…what are you going to give back to the community?” Even if it’s just a repository of their papers, we can then build up something. Now, we know that there are quite a few things being done, but they’re all over the place. Some people are just doing it to get published, because academics have to get published and students have to write their theses, but after that? The community’s just left like that. When we ask, have you heard of this paper? They say, “Yeah, we heard of this, or we got pages of it”, but that’s it. It’s sad, because the data has come from them. Some have not even been compensated for their data. I’m very concerned about this because if you take a fisherman away for a few hours, you’re taking away his income for a few hours. It may not be much, but still.

We’ve heard very varying prospects regarding the survival of Kristang. What do you think? Can Kristang survive in the long term, especially with the recent reclamation efforts that may affect the livelihood of the Kristang fishermen?

One of the reasons why Kristang has survived is because of the community that lives together. Elsewhere, once you’ve been away, you definitely lose it. In the Portuguese Settlement, it’s still being used every day. But now, it’s up to the community to want to do something. They have to do something. If you depend on people from outside the community to do it, it’s just going to remain something like, “Okay, books that I buy, I look at it, I learn some phrases, but I’m not using it, I’m not passing it on to my children”. So if you don’t have that intergenerational transmission, it’s going to die.

So that’s why we thought the family was very important in our original research. Unfortunately, a lot of families in the Settlement are struggling. It’s difficult for them to live from day to day, and I think the general sentiment is “I do care about this language, but I don’t have the resources or means to dedicate myself to it”. So, for me, it’s like if you let me help you and see what we can do from here, it’s there. Thankfully, what I’ve noticed is that people are now more open to learning it, because there’s a wider awareness of the fact that “it is who I am. This is me”. Language doesn’t necessarily identify you with your ethnic identity, but it’s definitely part of the process.

I think the community is fighting very hard against the reclamation, and for the first time I’m really seeing their togetherness. It’s not just about the place, but this is their heritage—if they lose the fight, they’re going to lose so much more than just fishing, because they will have to disperse. Thankfully, the state government does seem to be responding to them and working with them, but at the end of the day, it’s going to depend on the community. And they need to not only have people to talk to, but they must start to talk to their kids. The community must be interested, and they have to keep it going.

What is the most significant thing you have learnt from the experience of working with the Kristang community?

When I went for the Endangered Language Programme training session, they were like “So how do you get to your research site?” I was too embarrassed to tell them it was a two-hour drive, when everyone else was taking a boat and a plane. (laughs) It’s still field linguistics, in that you definitely have to get your hands dirty. You really have to go in with no preconceived notions. You really have to push everything away. You want to go in and change things, but you have to draw back, and learn how to work behind the scenes. You cannot come in with the I-know-best attitude. I’ve really learned that you have to be very humble, and you need to know that you’re not the expert. They are your language consultants. Not your participants, your consultants, and you need to treat them with that level of respect, which I think the Portuguese community in particular has not been getting.

One Response to “Revitalising Kristang”

  1. From the very moment that the spelling will not correspond with the Portuguese original, the language will be distorted and will become a jargon of fast consumption without any cultural content. If young people opt for English with their hyper complicated spelling, then the phonematic spelling does not play so an important role.I do not think that the Portuguese spelling, which is quite phonetic indeed, prevents them from learning. In addition to it, conserving its spelling the Cristang would have an added value, which is easy access to the Portuguese language and to the other Romance ones.

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