Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 8 : 5 May 2008
ISSN 1930-2940

Managing Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
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         Jennifer Marie Bayer, Ph.D.



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Patterns of Language Choice in the Domain of Office Among the Malaysian University Undergraduates

A. R. M. Mostafizar Rahman, M.A.


The choice of a code in a multilingual context, that is, 'who speaks what language to whom, when, where and even why?' is a complex task and it depends upon different variables such as language user's social background, linguistic profile, profession, educational background, attitudes and social domains.

This study investigated the patterns of language choice in the domain of office among University Putra Malaysia (UPM) undergraduates and examined the relationship between their patterns of language choice, and language proficiency, gender and ethnicity. Data were collected through a questionnaire survey and analyzed them quantitatively using SPSS.

The findings show that the respondents especially non-Malays are inclined to the use of English in the domain of office where Bahasa Melayu holds a constitutionally designated legitimate status as official language of Malaysia and the choice is influenced by language proficiency and ethnicity of the respondents.

Background of the Study

Language choice is a sociolinguistic phenomenon, which refers to selecting languages for different purposes in different contexts. Multilingual societies inevitably face conflict over language choice. What makes this language choice an obvious issue and concern in a multilingual society? Is the choice natural or forced? What are the intentions of an individual when making a choice? What are the factors that influence the specific choice? These are some of the issues that encouraged investigating the choice of languages in the offices among the university undergraduates in the multilingual setting of Malaysia.

Linguistic Situation in Malaysia

Historically, the first European language that came to Malaysia was Portuguese, and Dutch and then English followed this, with the British colonization. During this period, Chinese and Indian languages also set foot with the migration of Chinese and Indians to Malaysia. This, in fact, contributed in no small measure to Malaysia's growth as a multilingual country. As a British colony, the use of English occupied several formal and informal domains; it was the official language and used in court and education to a large extent. The use of English spread rapidly moulding an elite group of local users among the Malays, Chinese and Indians. As English was the language of the 'ruler', people with knowledge of English were given privileges. This helped increase the number of English speakers leading to an increase in the corresponding number of English medium schools in Malaysia. This increase of English medium schools was linked likely to the increasing popularity of the language. English became so influential and conquered so many domains of use that it remained the official language even after ten years from gaining independence in 1957 (Ain Nadzimah and Chan, 2003). However, after independence, the English language diminished in importance as the language of education since the medium of instruction was changed to Bahasa Melayu (BM).

With its independence, Malaysia experienced a lot of changes that affected language choice and use. Like any other newly born state, Malaysia (Malaya then) strongly felt the need to have a unique national and official language in order to get a national identity; to forget the linguistic influences of the past colonial periods and to unite different races through the use of a common language for the development of the country. Accordingly in 1963, BM was declared the national and official language of Malaysia with the passing of the National Language Act. To declare BM as the national and official language of Malaysia was a deliberate effort when the state had Malays (about half of the total population), Chinese (just over a third of the total population) and Indians (10% of the total population) (Gill, 2005). BM was chosen over other languages on several grounds but one of the most important was that -

To the Malays and bumiputera people, that the choice fell on Malay was the most natural thing. It is the language of the soil. Of all the bumiputera or indigenous languages, Malay is the most advanced in terms of its function as language of administration, high culture, literary knowledge and religion (Asmah, 1987:65).

In order to achieve the goal of the declaration of BM as the national and official language, BM was made the only medium of instruction to be used in national schools and an exclusively BM medium first public university called National University of Malaysia (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) was established in 1970. By 1983, all subjects irrespective of disciplines were taught and learnt through BM.

The implementation of the BM policy was accelerated through declaring that all government appointees must have competence in the national language, BM, and that entrance to government secondary schools also depended on competence in BM (Ridge, 2004). However, other minority and indigenous languages continued to be used obviating issues of language conflict.

The Chinese and Tamil vernacular primary schools were constitutionally allowed to continue with the respective ethnic languages as the medium of instruction. Amidst these changes, the status of English decreased to such a level that it became simply a subject of study like other subjects such as history, geography, and physics. The consequence of such a policy promoted bilingualism especially among the non-Malay children in independent Malaysia.

By the mid 1990s, tremendous changes impacted education. The government of Malaysia felt it necessary to give new emphasis on the learning of English which was and still is increasingly seen as crucial in the advancement of trade and commerce as well as giving the country a competitive edge. A milestone change is the green light given by the government to start teaching scientific and technical subjects in English at tertiary education (Ridge, 2004). In addition, the then Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mohathir Mohamad made it public in 2002 that mathematics and sciences will henceforth be taught in English from the first year of primary school. This unexpected announcement brought a drastic change in attitude among the people towards languages and the linguistic situation in Malaysia.

The preceding discussion reveals that bilingualism and multilingualism in Malaysia did not happen overnight. Rather it took place through several phases with the changes of language planning and policy in the passage of time. Generally, it set the direction towards a greater emphasis on Malays becoming bilingual (with BM and English) and non-Malays to be trilingual or multilingual (with BM, English and their respective ethnic language or languages).

With Malaysia being a multilingual nation, it is expected that people in Malaysia use different languages in different contexts. It is this issue as to what influences the language choice of people and how they pattern their choice and use of languages in the domain of office that constitute the focus of the study.

Statement of the Problem

The choice of language in a multilingual context is a complex task and it might be constrained by several factors such as language users' social background, educational and linguistic profile, language policy, attitudes and domains of language use. A number of studies (e.g. Fishman, 1972; Gal, 1979; Parasher, 1980; David, 1999; Hohenthal, 2003 and Yeh et al., 2004) found that people use language as per status of the domains. The unique linguistic situation in Malaysia may present evidence to the contrary. Thus, this study sought to obtain information about Malaysian undergraduates' patterns of language choice in the offices and to examine the relationship between the patterns of language choice, and the factors that constrain the choice such as language proficiency, ethnicity, and gender. This group of people is considered an important source of human capital in the nation's development. As such, it was of relevance to profile their language ability and language choice.

Objectives of the Study

This study examined UPM undergraduates' patterns of language choice in the domain of office. It also investigated the relationship between the patterns of language choice in offices, and gender, ethnicity and proficiency in languages among the respondents.

Literature Review

The choice of languages might be conscious or unconscious but it does not happen in a vacuum, rather, language operates in a context, which is situated in a speech community. This speech community may be diglossic, bilingual or multilingual where languages have functional and contextual allocations. For instance, the classical or standard or high variety (H) of Arabic is used for literacy, formal, public and official uses whereas the vernacular, local or low variety (L) is used for informal purposes. Chatterjee (1986) showed that the allocation of the two varieties of Bengali to different functional domains is very strict, with no overlapping. Ridiculous or sometimes comical will be the effect if the norms of situational selection between the two are violated (cited in Coulmas, 2005:126). It means that language choice is domain specific.

Several studies recognized the domain distribution of language use. One of the pioneering studies was Greenfield (1972) which reports that in the bilingual Puerto Rican community in New York, Spanish, the low language, is favoured in intimate domains such as family, and friendship while English, the high language, is chosen for employment and education.

Another well-cited study by Parasher (1980) shows that people in India use the mother tongue and another language in the family domain, whereas English dominates high domains such as education, government and employment and even some low domains, for instance, friendship and neighborhood. Nercissians (2001), Arua and Magocha (2002), Goebel (2002), Hohenthal (2003) and Yeh et al. (2004) also reported similar findings.

The concept of domain allocation of language use, however, has been criticized. Pascasio and Hidalgo (1979) and Scotton (1979) found partial effects of domain on language choice. Gal (1979) and Lu (1988), however, strongly disagreed with the effect of domain on language choice. Gal reported that whatever the social situations, only the identity of the participants determined the language choice in the Oberwart case of Austria.

Besides domain, some other factors were found to influence language choice. Among them, ethnicity, proficiency and gender are important. Wallwork (1981) says that it is necessary to look at the question of individual's language proficiency in relation to the situations in which language is used. David (1999) also recognizes that code switching reflects speaker's higher/lower proficiency and greater/less eases with a particular language. The influence of proficiency is also reported by Hakuta (1991), Yeh et al. (2004) and Coulmas (2005).

Similar to proficiency, ethnicity was also found to influence language choice. Gal (1979) found in the Oberwart case in Austria that only the identity of the participants can account for their language choice. Ferrer and Sankoff (2003), Burhanudeen (2003), and Sayahi (2005) also reported consistent finding with reference to the effect of ethnicity on language choice. Gender as a constraint of language choice was also recognized by a number of studies. Lu (1988) reports that difference in age, education, gender and residence area result in different attitudes towards maintenance and legitimate status for the native languages and the difference in attitude leads people to choose different languages. Chan (1994), however, finds no significant gender difference in Minnanrens' language use (cited in Yeh et al., 2004).


This study is descriptive and non-experimental. The data of the study were collected through a questionnaire survey administered to a sample of three hundred UPM undergraduates selected through "multistage cluster sampling". The questionnaire comprised three parts: Part I-the demographic profile of the respondents; Part II-level of proficiency in languages; and Part III-patterns of language choice in the offices. The questionnaire was prepared adapting items from instruments of previous studies (e.g. Yeh et al., 2004 and Hohenthal, 2003). The items were modified to suit the objectives of this study. A pilot survey was conducted to study the feasibility of the instrument. A reliability index of 0.74 (Part II) and 0.84 (Part III) were obtained (Cronbach Alpha). The overall reliability of the instrument was 0.79. This is deemed an acceptable figure for the research instrument.

Upon the completion of the data collection, these were coded and tabulated for computation and analysis. Seventy two questionnaires were found to be incomplete and therefore these were excluded from the final analysis. The analysis was carried out using SPSS to obtain percentage values, frequencies and correlations among the variables.


Language and Literacy Learning in the Accelerated Programme for Reading in Bangalore | Patterns of Language Choice in the Domain of Office Among the Malaysian University Undergraduates | The Role of Transfer in Thanking and Apologizing in English: A Study on ESL Speakers of Hindustani | Sanskrit and Prakrit as National Link Languages -
A Balanced Assessment
| Measuring the Achievements of English Language Learners: A Study of the Learners of Punjab in Pakistan at the Secondary Level | A Proposal for Standardization of English to Bangla Transliteration and Bangla Universal Editor | LANGUAGE AND POWER IN COMMUNICATION | HOME PAGE of May 2008 Issue | HOME PAGE | CONTACT EDITOR

A. R. M. Mostafizar Rahman, M.A.
Department of English Discipline
Khulna University

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