Malaysia fights to save centuries-old creole - GulfToday

Malaysia fights to save centuries-old creole

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Cherilyn Anne Da Costa , reading from a book in the Kristang language. Mohd Rasfan/AFP

Children in colourful outfits sing in a creole of Portuguese and Malay during a class in the historic Malaysian city of Malacca, part of efforts to stem the decline of the centuries-old language.

The youngsters chant "bong atardi mestri" (good evening teacher) and work their way through songs including "Bunitu siara siorus" (Beautiful ladies and gentlemen) and "Gato do matu" (The jungle cat).

"Many Eurasians have moved out of the settlement and the children only speak Malay and English.

Sara Santa Maria runs the weekly classes at her home to ensure the younger generation learn "Papia Kristang", one of several steps aimed at preserving an endangered language spoken by people of mixed Portuguese and Malaysian ancestry.

"I definitely fear Kristang could disappear," the 50-year-old teacher said, as the youngsters dressed in Portuguese-style traditional costumes laughed and danced.

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Leona Cheryl Danker, posing for a picture with the Kristang language word Familia meaning "family."

"Many Eurasians have moved out of the settlement and the children only speak Malay and English," she added, referring to an area of Malacca that has traditionally been home to speakers of the language.

Kristang developed after the Portuguese took over the strategic port city on the Straits of Malacca, one of the world's most important shipping routes, about 500 years ago and colonisers married local women.

It was an era when tiny Portugal had a global empire and Malacca, a centre of the lucrative spice trade, was a key prize for rival powers. After Portuguese rule, the Dutch colonised it and later the British took it over until Malaysian independence.

Part of my identity

UNESCO, which lists languages in peril, classifies Kristang as "severely endangered" and says only about 2,000 people speak it.

It is just one of many tongues in danger, with the UN agency predicting that half the world's 6,000 languages will disappear by the end of this century.

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Sara Santa Maria, teaching students the Kristang language.

Groups of elderly men sit chatting in the language on the waterfront, and are enthusiastic about passing it on to the next generation.

"I and my wife speak the language with our five children, 11 grandchildren and our two-year-old great grandchild to keep it alive," former fisherman Stanley Goonting, 72, told AFP.

But he is all too aware of Kristang's vulnerability: "There is a danger that Papia Kristang will be spoken less and die out."

In neighbouring Singapore, Kevin Martens Wong, a Eurasian-Chinese teacher, is spearheading efforts to revive Kristang, and has taught the language to hundreds of students since 2016.

"I had never learnt it growing up, so there's a strong passion and investment in learning the language and passing it on to others," he said.

"Kristang is part of my identity and culture, I want to preserve it," said Gabriella Amber, a 12-year-old who has been learning the language for five years.

"If we stop talking, I fear it will become extinct."

Agence France-Presse