A Foreign Language Learned is a Cultural Gap Bridged

Malaysians pride themselves in their ability to master and mix tongues. For some, picking up one more language – preferably a foreign one – is irresistible.

Foreign language centres have long had afirm foothold in Penang. The Malaysian- German Society (MGS), for one, emerged more than 50 years ago as a friendship society in 1962. Dr Doris Hafner, its present director, ascribes the society’s long history to the language itself: “The German language actually plays quite an important role here due to the increasing number of Germanybased companies rooted in Penang.” She adds, “As of now, the society comprises mostly students, as more and more would like to pursue their tertiary education in Germany.”

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

Students of the German language.

President of the Penang Japanese Language Society (PJLS) Cheng Ah See says that the language centre started out back in the 1980s conducting night classes: “We did not have a fixed location then – we were always moving around. But the centre slowly has expanded to where we are today. Some of our exstudents even came back as teachers.” At the moment, the centre occupies two floors of a A Foreign Language Learned is a Cultural Gap Bridged commercial building on Jalan Gottlieb and caters to over 160 students yearly.

“There is a Team France in Malaysia, too!” says Nicolas Gouletquer, head of the education department at the Embassy of France in Malaysia. The Alliance Française de Penang has been operating since the 1960s. “Most people choose to study at the Alliance Française because they are the only centres in the world recognised by the French government for providing official certifications of the level of French, the DELF-DALF certificate,” adds Gouletquer.

Language is the Culture Itself

Learning a language is more than picking up another tongue; often, it also merges with the desire to discover another culture, be it through music, film, art or even food. Among the most commonly cited reasons for enrolling in foreign language classes are the wish to fulfil a visa requirement, to gain advancement in one’s career or just purely out of interest. “It allows you to better understand the culture of people and also build bridges between nations,” says Gouletquer.

What’s particularly interesting, however, is the impact a foreign language centre has on the local environment. More than just providing language lessons, it also encourages intercultural dialogue. “Here at MGS, we are always organising social and cultural events to promote German culture among the locals, such as movie nights and annual balls,” says Hafner. “We also have a bi-monthly German breakfast gathering for our members – it’s an event where you can meet new people, network and exchange contacts. Plus, it is open to the public. We also organise talks – mainly for German expats who would like to know more about Malaysia and vice versa. And of course, not forgetting Oktoberfest – possibly the biggest event of the year attracting over 2,900 attendees! So, it is through such events and activities that German culture can be manifested and promoted further.”

Karen Lai

Christmas celebrated the German way.

The Alliance Française is generally seen as “a centre that works towards three essential tasks: offering French classes, both in France and abroad; spreading awareness of French and French-speaking world culture; and promoting cultural diversity,” notes Gouletquer. “The Alliances Française centres of the world are also often selected as venues for the expression of local artists’ expertise and creativity. They are, after all, a non-profit organisation administrated by a local board. Le French Festival (formerly French Art and Film festival) is, for instance, an important event in the Malaysian cultural calendar with more than 9,200 spectators attending last year.”

Karen Lai

Shelves of books at the Penang Japanese Language Society.

Riding on the hugely popular Korean wave, Korean classes have recently mushroomed all over Penang, along with Korean restaurants, cosmetics shops, etc. “My classes are all about having fun in learning – I believe it is the most effective method,” says Yoon Jung Hyun, a South Korean who holds private tutoring sessions in Penang. He tends to strip away typical classroom formalities once in a while just for the fun of it. “Many of my students have initiated numerous out-of-classroom activities such as Korean-themed karaoke sessions, Korean food eating sessions and coffee talks. In a way, through these activities, we cross-share cultures and learn a lot about each country’s manners, etiquettes, thinking process and passion.”

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

Korean lessons involve snack food – to familiarise with the culture, of course.

Comparatively, Japanese culture has deeper roots in Penang, as will be seen at the 20th Chang Jia Ying Yoon Jung Hyun Bon Odori Festival slotted for July this year. “Some of our students will participate in the dancing activities. Our centre has a stall to sell souvenirs and coupons too,” says Cheng. “We also co-organise with The Japan Foundation the Japanese Speech contest that is held once a year. We are always trying to get the students to learn more about the culture not only through the language itself but through Japan-related activities and events,” says Cheng.

Chew Win Chern, a 24-year-old who will be pursuing her Masters of Arts in Germany, cites her keen interest in German culture as one of the reasons why she took up German classes. It’s no walk in the park, though: “Yes, learning a foreign language has its difficulties, but the beauty of it is that the more you know the language, the more you will come to appreciate the culture too.”

For May-Lynn Amalie, an 18-year-old German-Malaysian, learning German strikes a nostalgic chord with her: “It reminds me of home,” she says. Language and culture are inextricably connected.

Chang Jia Ying is a student and an avid reader of independent magazines.

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