Sarawak is one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo. It is home to 28 ethnic groups, each with a distinct language, culture and lifestyle. Many groups are afraid of losing their traditional ways, as modern life encroaches. An indigenous farming community in a remote part of Sarawak is teaching pre-school children in their mother tongue, instead of in the dominant Malay language.
Dozens of three- and four-year-olds enthusiastically surround a group of visitors. They are not in the least bit shy of the strangers. They are curious and engage the visitors in animated chatter. An official says the children are always this rambunctious.
?They are just as themselves. They are not putting on a show. When I come over here once a month or even twice a month, they will be doing the same thing. That is what we want to teach them, to be confident. They have a lot of interactions with the teachers, you know,? said Josak Anak Siam, the coordinator for the Multilingual Education Program in Kampung Bunuk, a small farming community in this remote part of Sarawak. He helped set up the pre-school, which conducts lessons in the native Bidayuh language.
The community pilot program began in January 2007, in association with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the Malaysian branch of the Summer Institute of Linguistics.
Josak says the village launched the pre-school program after receiving a briefing by SIL officials on the benefits of multilingual education.
?That is the time when SIL officers explained to us that many languages are dying off because the people are not taking an initiative to preserve the languages," Josak said. "So, before the Bidayuh language dies off in this world, we have to take this action to develop the curriculum and then we start off with the play schools where we intend to let the children have a strong foundation in their mother tongue before they learn other languages.?
It is becoming more difficult to keep indigenous languages alive as many of the communities in which they are spoken are at risk of vanishing.
Siti Rodziah, senior manager in Sididik?s Business Development and Financial Division, notes only about 2,000 people live in Kampung Bunuk. She says young people are leaving the village and migrating to Sarawak?s administrative capital, Kuching, and other cities in search of work. The old people are left behind to do the farming, she says.
?Now, when their children start to grow up nowadays, they are more educated and they have a better job in a big town or cities," she said. "This is why now, you can see, the numbers are getting lower in the village compared to in the city. My hope for my state here is we still preserve whatever natural culture that we have for all ethnics.?
The U.N. Children?s Fund is supporting several maternal-language pre-school programs among the ethnic-Hmong people in Vietnam.
UNICEF?s deputy representative for Malaysia, Victor Karunan, says he is impressed with the results coming out of this three-year project. He believes such programs would be similarly advantageous for other children in Malaysia.
?In fact, evidence shows that those children who actually began their initial learning in pre-school and in early primary in their mother tongue have actually performed much better, even if they have had to switch languages, later on," Karunan said. "That is what evidence has shown and that is why in different countries UNICEF has supported what we call mother-tongue-based bilingual education.?
Back in Kampung Bunuk, the teacher begins the day?s lesson with a prayer. This is intended to develop the spiritual values of the children in this Christian community. The rest of the three-and-a-half-hour session is given over to simple reading and math, art and playtime.
When the children reach age six, they go through a so-called bridging year, in which they are taught in both the indigenous and Malay languages. When they enter primary school, at age seven, lessons are conducted in Malay. English is gradually introduced. Officials here believe the children maneuver this transition very well.
The community remains enthusiastic about the program, but is afraid it may have to close the pre-school for lack of funds. UNESCO stopped financing the project last year, saying it wants to support similar programs in other countries. Kampung Bunuk is hoping the government and private sources will come up with the money they need to keep the program alive.