I watched the movie Arrival when it came out and it's one of my favourite movies in recent memory. Most times we enjoy and remember movies for entertainment purposes, but with this movie I remember it not only for the intriguing story, but especially for something I learned from the movie.
Have you heard of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? It's also known as the theory of linguistic relativity. I'm not a linguist and I haven't studied this theory in great detail, but the basic premise is that the language you speak and the language you think in determines or at the very least influences your cognition, your perception, and thus your world view. It was the key in the film to understanding how to communicate with the aliens, and since I watched it I've been more aware of how this theory may actually explain some of the observations I've made in my surroundings.
Malaysia is a multi-racial and thus, multi-lingual country. The Malay, Chinese, and Indian sub-populations make up the majority, with more ethnicities in East Malaysia such as the Iban, Bidayuh, and Kadazan. Apparently, Malaysia is home to 137 languages (I had no idea!), though the most commonly spoken languages are Malay, English, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Tamil. Being multi-lingual is common in the country, with most people being able to speak at least two languages. Such a mixture of languages in a country would be a fascinating opportunity to see just how much truth there is to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and based on my very generalised and non-scientific observations, I think the hypothesis has some merit to it.
When it comes to language, I think most Malaysians can be classified into two broad categories - those who mainly converse in English, and those who mainly converse in their respective mother tongues. I feel like this difference can explain or at least partially explain why some Malaysians appear more authoritarian, while others appear more empathetic. I noticed this in real life but it seems more obvious when it comes to online debates about politics, religion, racial harmony, and social issues. Now this is only a very general assumption based on my personal observations, but it seems like those who converse primarily in their mother tongues tend to be more authoritarian, while those who primarily converse in English tend to be more empathetic. Again I want to stress that this is just a gross generalisation.
How exactly does conversing in English or your mother tongue affect Malaysian minds? I'm not sure, but I have some theories on the indirect consequences that their preferred language of communication could have on shaping their world view. Firstly, their preferred language will determine their source of media and information consumption. People who primarily converse in English are more likely to watch more English movies and TV shows, read more English books, read English news online, their sources of knowledge and information can come from all over the world. On the other hand, Malaysians who aren't as fluent in English and prefer to consume media in their native mother tongues will be limited to local sources, cutting them off from a wealth of global opinions and information.
This leads to my second theory, the echo chamber. An echo chamber is when someone is surrounded by like-minded people who share similar opinions and beliefs, therefore having their own opinions and beliefs supported, which strengthens their convictions. It's just like a literal echo chamber when you hear the same things that you say repeated back to you. When Malaysians primarily converse in their mother tongues, they will of course only converse with others who can understand them, which in Malaysia, often means people of the same race. This also means that the media and information they consume will likely be prepared by people of the same race as well. This could in theory, lead to an echo chamber effect of sorts as people would be surrounded by entertainment, opinions, and thoughts belonging to people of the same race, thus shaping and potentially supporting whatever world view they hold. Let's not forget the strong association between language and culture too. Understanding a language opens you up to different cultures, so does only speaking one language culturally restrict you? In contrast, people who primarily converse in English could be less affected by such a language-restricted echo chamber as they're exposed to a global collection of knowledge, thoughts, opinions, and beliefs, which again in theory, could broaden their own perspective of the world.
Some of you may know that Malaysia recently underwent some political turmoil where a new political coalition seized power from the democratically elected government. This issue came to the forefront during one particular press conference by our new Prime Minister as he was addressing the nation about the steps being taken to combat the spread of COVID-19. The press conferences are always delivered in Malay, which is the national language of the country, but one particular two-minute segment during this press conference was delivered in English.
Many people pointed out that this message being delivered in English implies that it was targeted towards a specific group of people - English-minded folk. So why were Malaysians who converse in English singled out? One likely explanation could be that these English-speaking Malaysians are the ones who most vocally disapprove of this "backdoor" government. English-speaking Malaysians like myself. So why do English-speaking Malaysians oppose this government? Why didn't the PM speak in Malay to address those who are less fluent in English? Are the only people who oppose this new government English-speaking? Could it be that our language of choice has somehow affected our perception of democracy? Are those who's preferred language is English angry that the elected government was ousted while those less fluent in the language aren't as bothered by it? There's of course many more factors which influence one's political standing, but the language choice made by our PM is interesting nonetheless.
Have you ever heard of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? Do you think it holds water? How would it work in countries with a more homogeneous population that all speak the same language? I'm interested to hear your thoughts on the matter.