Kodrah Kristang! (“Awaken, Kristang!”)

On 21 November, The Straits Times featured a language initiative by Kevin Martens Wong, an honours year English Language major from the department. Kevin’s language initiative focuses on the revival and preservation of Kristang, a critically endangered language of the Portuguese-Eurasian community. Below we catch up with Kevin to learn more about his initiative and the plans he has to revitalize Kristang. We learn that besides continuing to run the popular Kristang classes, Kevin has plans to launch an online Kristang dictionary, produce a textbook for Kristang and hold a Kristang Language Festival in May 2017.

(Note: The new cycle of Kristang classes begin on 3 January 2017. To register, see poster below.)

Kevin in a Kristang class (photo by Marvin Tang)
Kevin in a Kristang class (photo by Marvin Tang)

Q: What is Kristang?

Kristang is the critically endangered heritage language of the Portuguese-Eurasian community in Malacca and Singapore. It is a creole language, meaning that it is effectively the progeny of at least two to three other languages: much of Kristang’s grammar appears to have its roots in Malay and possibly Hokkien, while Portuguese provided most of Kristang’s vocabulary. The language has also seen influence from other languages historically present in our region, including Dutch, Konkani, Malayalam, Hakka, Cantonese and Indian varieties of Creole Portuguese, all of which have left their mark on the contemporary Kristang lexicon.

Q: How many people speak Kristang today?

Estimates vary widely, but in Singapore the language is almost extinct, down to 100 mostly older speakers or so, while in Malacca it appears to be a little stronger, though it is fast declining there as well — an optimistic estimate would be about 400 or so speakers in Malacca, mostly concentrated in the Portuguese Settlement. There is also a significant Portuguese-Eurasian diaspora community in other cities worldwide like Perth and London, but overall I’d say no more than 500 people speak Kristang today, and most of them not even on a daily basis, if at all.

Members of a Kristang class (photo by Marvin Tang)
Members of a Kristang class (photo by Marvin Tang)

Q: What have you been doing to revive the language?

I am a linguistics undergraduate of Portuguese-Eurasian descent who only discovered the language even existed in January 2015 — that’s how unaware most young Singaporeans, even those who have their roots in this community, are about this language! I also discovered that almost nothing was known about Kristang in Singapore, both in the public sphere and academically, and so set out to document and revitalize the language on my own. I learned the language from my work with the remaining speakers in Singapore and the materials that had been produced about the Malaccan variety of Kristang; with one of the remaining speakers, Bernard Mesenas, we started a multimodal revitalization initiative for the language in Singapore called Kodrah Kristang (“Awaken, Kristang”)  in March of this year.

The initiative is centered around adult classes for complete beginners in Kristang: we’ve run four iterations of these classes so far, with a fifth and sixth already on the horizon in January and March 2017, and brought the language to 192 people in just eight months, which frankly still amazes me — demand for the classes is still very strong, and shows no signs of slowing down.  For older, more immobile and/or diaspora learners, we also produce an audio course, Kontah Kristang, and an online vocabulary course, Kriseh Kristang, so that they can work with the language as well. Beyond classes, I produce a new video of myself singing an original or translated song in Kristang every month in an ongoing series called Kantah Kristang; together with the rest of my team, we’ve also just received a National Heritage Board grant to start work on the first ever Kristang Language Festival in Singapore, to be held in May 2017. Complementing all this are our ongoing efforts to produce an online, collaborative dictionary in Kristang and a textbook for the language in Singapore, and an overall Revitalization Plan and Curriculum Plan that I wrote while attending the 2016 Institute on Collaborative Language Research (CoLang) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in July — the Revitalization Plan provides a roadmap for the language up to 2045, 29 years from now. In the near future, we hope to start classes for kids, and start formal teacher training so that the entire initiative becomes more sustainable.

Announcement for Kristang classes in January 2017
Announcement for Kristang classes in January 2017. Click to enlarge.

Q: How has your training as an EL major helped you in your work with Kristang?

If I hadn’t majored in linguistics I probably would have never had the confidence to first take up the extremely daunting and always very challenging task of revitalizing a language, even one part of my heritage; but because I had that linguistic training, I felt like this was the best way I could give back to my community, since such training isn’t exactly that common. So I had had the good fortune to have read courses with the department on second language teaching (EL3880E) and applied linguistics (EL3880F), creoles and contact languages (EL3211), and field methods in linguistics (EL3212), which all turned out to be highly relevant for what I needed to do with Kristang; I also had the fantastic opportunity to read an undergraduate research opportunity (UROP; EL3551) under Assistant Professor Rebecca Starr that very ably prepared me for independent research work on my own.

Since we started Kodrah Kristang, I’ve then been able to start looking at how I can have Kristang help me with my ongoing training as a linguistics major; I’ve written term papers and group projects on unexplored aspects of Kristang syntax (EL4201) and morphology (EL3205), with the former eventually becoming a conference paper which I delivered at the 5th Language Documentation and Linguistic Theory conference (LDLT5) at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, and eventually wrote my undergraduate honours thesis on Differential Object Marking in Kristang this semester under Assistant Professor Michael Erlewine. I’ve also presented about Kodrah Kristang at the University of Macau, the National Institute of Education, and the University of Malaya as an invited speaker, and will further present about the initiative at conferences in Hawaii and Barcelona early next year. Last but not least, Kristang is to be the language of focus for the new iteration of EL3212 Field Methods in Linguistics this coming semester, which I think is awesome.

Q: What are your goals for the future of Kristang?

To make the language healthy again, of course! — Kristang remains on the precipice of extinction, and though I like to think that our efforts have helped postpone its demise, it remains true that few families speak the language at home, and there is still relatively low awareness about the language’s existence in Singapore. For Kristang to be preserved for future generations, intergenerational transmission of the language must begin again, and more Singaporeans must be made aware that the language is a priceless part of our intangible cultural heritage — something very unique to our region, and part of our shared history and heritage.

(Assistant Professor Rebecca Starr contributed the questions to this post.)