27 December 2009


SPN stands for Sistem Pendidikan Negara ('National Education System'), and SPN21 is the new education system for the 21st century that has recently been introduced in Brunei.

One quite major change is that, from now on, mathematics and science will be taught in English from the start of primary school, whereas in the past, Malay was the medium of instruction for the first three years of primary school. Table 3 on page 41 of the SPN21 book published by the Ministry of Education shows this:This is quite a substantial change and it may have a big impact on language usage in Brunei. But what is quite surprising is that there is no discussion of the rationale for this change anywhere in the SPN21 book.

The only relevant material I can find anywhere in the book concerning this issue is the top of page 15, which says:

    "SPN21 also addresses concerns on:
  • The need to sustain and strengthen performance in Bahasa Melayu
  • Low English Language proficiency
  • Poor performances in mathematics and the sciences"
Only time will tell whether the changes will help improve performance in English. Furthermore, it is unclear if using English as the medium of instruction for mathematics and science will help improve performance in those subjects.

19 December 2009

Mixing in BruDirect

I find the material in the "Have Your Say" section of BruDirect fascinating, as it offers a window onto how language is used in Brunei. In particular, the mix of English and Malay is interesting: even in the English-medium section, there is regular use of Malay, and in the Malay-medium section, there is a lot of English as well.

This seems to confirm that Brunei really is becoming a bilingual society, and (at least for those who are computer literate), it is expected that people should be able to understand both these languages.

To investigate the extent of mixing, I looked at the language used in ten separate discussion threads where the original posting was in English and there were ten or more contributions in each thread. I then classified each of these contributions as:
  • E : English only
  • M : Malay only
  • E(M) : English with some Malay
  • M(E) : Malay with some English
  • E+M : an even mix of the two languages
The results of the 143 contributions are shown below.

It can be seen that there are about the same number of English-dominated contributions (66) as Malay-dominated ones (64).

These figures confirm that mixing between the two languages is extremely common in an Internet forum such as BruDirect.

18 December 2009

Keramunting / Karamunting

Because Brunei Malay is not usually written down, the spelling is sometimes uncertain. This particularly affects an unstressed syllable near the start of a word, which may be written with 'e' or with 'a'. Look at the following picture, taken of two signs along the Tasek Lama / Markucing forest trail:

Even though the two signs are next to each other, they do not agree on how to spell the name of the place: should it have 'e' or 'a' in the first syllable?

12 December 2009


I have previously discussed (eg 20 Feb 09) the work of Jennifer Jenkins, and her insistence that speakers of English in places such as Brunei do not need to mimic the accent of people from Inner-Circle places such as Britain. In her book English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and Identity (OUP, 2007), she proposes a Lingua Franca Core (LFC) of just those features of pronunciation that are essential for international communication, and she suggests that speakers should be free to choose how to pronounce sounds that are outside the LFC according to the locally prevailing accent.

This seems to make a lot of sense, as slavishly mimicking a British or American accent does not seem to be appropriate for most learners of English in the modern world. The problem lies with which sounds are included within the LFC and which are not.

Jenkins suggests that vowel quality (eg the distinction between send and sand) should be excluded, but vowel length (eg the distinction between the long vowel in pool and the short vowel in pull) be included; but many teachers are likely to disagree with this, if only because there are far more words that are differentiated by means of the /e/~/æ/ distinction than the /u:/~/ʊ/ one. In reality, it seems that agreeing on any set of sounds that can be excluded from the LFC is always going to be tough.

Recently in the Philippines, I heard someone pronounce comfortable as [kʌmfətəbəl], ie with four syllables rather than the three that are usually suggested in dictionaries; and it occurred to me that this pronunciation could never be misunderstood by anyone, so why should anyone worry about it? Furthermore, if comfortable is pronounced as three syllables (as I tend to say it), it contains the consonant cluster [mft] in the middle, which is really quite tough. (In fact, ending a syllable with [mf] only occurs very rarely in English, for example in the medical term lymph and the colloquial word bumpf.)

So, if comfortable with four syllables is easier to say and can be understood by everyone, why not encourage it? I suspect that it will become the international norm one day, regardless of what Inner-Circle speakers from places such as Britain think.

05 December 2009


In my previous post, I discussed a paper from a recent conference on English in South-East Asia that was held in Manila last week.

Another interesting paper was by Prof Azirah Hashim from Universiti Malaya in KL, talking about the occurrence of the word amok in English. It seems that this word was borrowed into English as early as the 16th century, and that its meaning has shifted somewhat from its origins in Malay.

You might think it strange that someone could focus their research on the occurrence of a single word. But in fact this research touches on many fascinating topics. For example:
  • history – how is it that the word was borrowed into English at a time when there was little or no contact between the English and Malay peoples?
  • sociology – if amok is the best known instance of a word borrowed from Malay into English, how does that influence the attitudes of people in the West towards Malays? Do people have the misconception that Malays have a tendency to go crazy?
  • semantics – originally, amok could refer to a sickness, as the cause of people acting strangely. Now, however (at least in English), amok just refers to craziness. It is valuable to study how this shift in meaning occurred.
  • usage – in English, we use the word almost exclusively in the phrase run amok. By studying this, we can gain an insight into collocational patterns of usage.
It is interesting to see how many fascinating insights can be gained from the detailed investigation of a single word. People who are considering a research topic might learn from this: sometimes a narrow topic can be extremely productive.

04 December 2009


Last week, I was at a conference on English in South-East Asia in Manila, and there were many interesting papers, some of which I would like to mention.

A paper by Lim Beng Soon of SIM University in Singapore discussed loanwords in the correspondence from the 1920s and 30s of Tun Dato' Sir Tan Cheng Lock, a prominent member of the Peranakan community of Malasia at the time. Something that interested me is the origin of the word Peranakan, a group of people who are otherwise sometimes known as 'Straits-born Chinese'.

Clearly, the root of the word is anak, meaning 'child'. But then, what does it indicate a child of? Lim Beng Soon suggests that Peranakan is a short form of Peranakan Cina ('child of China'), and he says there may be other possibilities, such as Peranakan Jawi, where Jawi means something like 'foreign'.

My dictionary glosses peranakan as 'mixed parentage'. And my UBD colleague Nur Azam tells me that, in Brunei at least, peranakan can also refer to the womb.

I guess the word is a polyseme (a word with a number of distinct but related meanings).