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Encouraging the Use of an Endangered Language: Melaka Portuguese

Photo by Phearak Chamrien from Pexels.

In the rich tapestry of Malaysia’s linguistic and cultural diversity, the Melaka Portuguese language, stands as a unique hybrid, carrying the legacy of the community. Prof. Dr. Stefanie Shamila Pillai, a dedicated advocate and lecturer at the Universiti Malaya's Department of English Language shared, in an enlightening conversation, some insights about her passion.


Her work revolves around the preservation and revitalization of the Melaka Portuguese language and culture, a subject deeply personal to her as a member of the community herself. Dr. Stefanie Pillai’s research and initiatives are fueled by a fervent desire to safeguard the endangered Melaka Portuguese language, also known as Papiah Kristang, facing challenges of intergenerational transmission. The language, a treasure trove of historical and cultural significance, suffers from a lack of continuity across generations. The linguistic landscape is gradually shifting towards a new variety of English, diverging from the traditional colloquial Malaysian English, raising concerns about the preservation of this unique linguistic heritage.


She emphasizes the urgent need for a multifaceted approach involving community engagement, educational programs, and micro-tourism initiatives to ensure the survival of the Melaka Portuguese language. Central to this effort is the preservation of the culture, intrinsically linked to the language. The mainly vibrant Catholic community, with its distinctive events like Pesta San Pedro and Pesta San Juang, serves as a cornerstone for cultural preservation. In her advocacy and research, Dr. Stefanie Pillai isn’t merely focused on academic publications but actively engages in initiatives to raise awareness and educate the public. Her efforts include exhibitions, course materials, a dictionary app, and an illustrated children’s book that incorporates the essence of the community's culture.


A few of various publications of Dr Stefanie's works on the Melaka Portuguese language.


Looking ahead, Dr. Stefanie Pillai envisions a future where the preservation and documentation of the Melaka Portuguese language are not only sustained but also accessible and impactful, particularly for the younger generation. Her work, including contributions to the digital archives (Endangered Language Archives) and platforms like TEDxUKM, aims to ensure that the language remains alive and relevant. Besides, she edited a section on contact languages in Words Without Borders which features other Asian contact languages like Chitty Malay, Patua, and Sri Lankan Portuguese apart from Melaka Portuguese. She gratefully shared that Universiti Malaya supports community engagement efforts including her work. The university also has a Culture and Heritage Centre in Melaka. This center is a resource center for multidisciplinary research on both tangible and intangible heritage culture as well as a center to work with the various communities in Melaka.


During the conversation, Dr. Stefanie Pillai also shared a few phrases in Kristang. “Teng bong?” means how are you? or “ada baik?” in the local Malay language. The vocabulary of Melaka Portuguese is mainly derived from Portuguese but its pronunciation and grammar differ substantially from Portuguese.


As she passionately shared her insights, she emphasized the importance of collaborative efforts in preserving not just language but various aspects of cultural heritage. She encourages students and researchers to delve into the uncharted territories of lesser-known traditions, oral narratives, and medicinal knowledge, stressing the need to document and share these invaluable aspects. In a world where cultural diversity faces threats of erosion, Dr. Stefanie Pillai’s commitment stands as a beacon, reminding us of the collective responsibility to celebrate and preserve the mosaic of traditions that make us who we are.


Her parting advice for enthusiasts and academics in similar pursuits is a call to action, urging them to be advocates, educators, and champions of cultural preservation. The conversation with Dr. Stefanie Shamila Pillai is a testament to the power of passionate advocacy and dedicated research, shedding light on the crucial importance of preserving linguistic and cultural heritage. Her words echo, reminding us of the profound beauty in the diversity of our country, but more personally, those that surround us and the necessity to protect it for generations to come.


Dr. Stefanie, also a member of the Melaka Portuguese community stands as an advocate in efforts to preserve its endangered language.


Researcher featured:
Professor Dr Stefanie Shamila Pillai,
Department of English Language, Faculty of Languages and Linguistics, UM
Author: Ms. Priscilla Diniesha
Priscilla Diniesha is an MA student in English Literature who has a deep passion for language and writing. When she landed a job in copywriting and unlocked skills she never knew she had, she realized it was her calling after all.
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