Kristang, the ancestral tongue of Eurasians of Portuguese descent, was once in danger of being forgotten in Singapore, but is being revived by Kevin Martens Wong.
We are sitting in a freezing room, most of us wrapped in shawls or jackets, scribbling answers to our mother tongue exam paper. There are many instructions, all of them in this language, so some of us can’t even figure out the full meaning of the instructions. OK, I admit, before today, I only had a hazy idea of what the word for ‘instructions’ even is in my mother tongue. But it’s not because I’m such a delinquent. It’s because this exam paper isn’t in Malay, an Indian language or Mandarin. It’s in Kristang.
What is Kristang?
Kristang is a creole language that developed organically in Malacca during the Portuguese rule there, from 1511 to 1641. A creole is a language developed from two or more languages. In Kristang’s case, those are Portuguese and Malay. Kristang was the common language spoken by people in Malacca during the Portuguese colonial era, and Dutch rule after, spoken by everyone from Malay fishermen to Hokkien traders.
It’s also the ancestral tongue of Eurasians of Portuguese descent. You can recognise these Eurasians by their Portuguese surnames like Pereira, Rosario, Sequeira, Gomes and my own name, De Silva. Many of the Eurasians in Singapore are of Portuguese descent, originating from Malacca. Even if they don’t have Portuguese surnames, many of our Eurasians can probably count an ancestor or two who was Portuguese-Eurasian, simply because the Portuguese were the earliest European colonisers in Asia, so they had a head start intermarrying with the Asian women here and producing Eurasian children.
When I was in Primary One, I didn’t understand why my parents had chosen Malay for my second language. Even more puzzling was that it was called mother tongue. “We aren’t Malay,” I told my mother, confident in all my seven-year-old wisdom. “So why am I studying Malay as my mother tongue?” My mother told me that English was our mother tongue (because we were Eurasian), but that didn’t sound right either. Wasn’t English the mother tongue of English people, I thought, as in the people living in England?
Later, as I got older, I learned that our ancestral tongue was Kristang. This was the language spoken by both my grandmothers. My paternal grandmother, Margaret Pereira, was born in Malacca, and she and her husband came to Singapore after World War II. My maternal grandmother, Patsy Sequeira, had a strict father who wanted his children to succeed in British-run Singapore, and insisted on them speaking only English at home. At least within his earshot. My grandmother and her sisters whispered and giggled in Kristang when they were safely out of his hearing.
So I never got to learn my ancestral tongue. Growing up, I envied the other students and was amazed at their complaints about having to formally learn their mother tongue in school. I would never get to learn my own mother tongue, and my linguistic inheritance would be lost to me forever.
But I am thrilled to say I was wrong.
Two years ago, on 12 March, an NUS linguistics undergraduate named Kevin Martens Wong started a small class in the CAPT residence of the university. Its purpose—to teach Kristang.
I joined this class in April 2016. There were 17 of us, all Singaporeans, of varying ages. What we had in common was a desire to learn a language that many said was lost, or would soon be, as our grandparents’ generation in Singapore who spoke it was dying out.
The classes were the furthest thing from my Malay lessons in school. Instead of tearfully boring lists of tenses to memorise or pages of vocabulary to regurgitate, what we mostly did was play games. Kevin designs these games to incorporate new vocabulary and help learners absorb new phrases, verbs and sentence structures. For instance, when we were learning the words to describe members of the family and extended family, a game we played involved splitting us into two teams. Each team would form an imaginary family, and had to draw their family tree without letting the other team see it. Then, the other team had to ask them questions in Kristang like, “Is so-and-so your mother?”, “How many siblings do you have?” and “Is your father the youngest son?” to try and figure out how each person was related to the other, and attempt to sketch the other team’s
That was the beginning of the Kodrah Kristang (Awaken, Kristang) revitalisation initiative, which aims to revive the Kristang language.
"Language is a social thing. You have to play games, talk to people, meet people. This is an unusual way of teaching language in Singapore." – Kevin Martens Wong
A Language Blossoms
As of March 2018, there are classes of six different levels and a total of 400 students. In two years, the number of students has increased over 20-fold. There have now been nine rounds of the entry-level 1A class.
“The most surprising thing for me is that there’s still massive demand for these classes,” says Kevin, during our interview at a café at the Central Library on a Thursday afternoon before the advanced-level Kristang class that evening. He has come from NIE, where he’s training to be a teacher.
Among the millennials who sign up, there are Eurasians and non-Eurasians. “Millennials are more open to this sort of thing,” observes Kevin. For the older people, he believes they join because they remember the language, they have more familiarity with it and like being able to speak it again. “It’s also a social thing and Eurasians are very social. ”
There is something powerful that unites all those who come for classes though. “Across the board, the people who come have a strong recognition of the importance of intangible cultural heritage, and it may not necessarily be their own,” says Kevin.
When pressed, Kevin gives his take on why he thinks it’s taken off in such a big way. “Kodrah Kristang is very unique. There have been other language revival movements, but none youth-led and intergenerational. Language is a social thing. You have to play games, talk to people, meet people. This is an unusual way of teaching language in Singapore. We also make the effort to have all the materials looking clean and attractive to appeal to the millennial generation. And the learning takes place in a very systematic, structured way.”
Last November, he won the President’s Award for Volunteerism and/or Philanthropy (Individual, Youth Winner), after being nominated by someone in the community. “I’m happy, I’m grateful, but I don’t want to stop moving, I want to keep going. I always recognise that if nobody comes for the classes, that’s it. My family tells me, don’t let it get to your head, don’t plateau. I also try and push for more recognition for the team.”
Although I realise it’s no mean feat to keep something like this going, I am still surprised when he admits that some days, he feels like giving up. And what keeps him going, I ask. His grandparents’ encouragement. “They tell me that this means a lot to a whole bunch of people and if I stop, everybody’s hearts will be broken. Also, the fact that this work is very meaningful, it’s very unique and I’m able to have a tangible impact on society, which is something many Singaporeans my age don’t get to do. It’s a unique endeavour and I feel privileged to be doing it.”
He also enjoys teaching people “uncommon things”, and being a teacher is something he has in common with his grandparents. Kevin’s delightful grandparents, whom I know from my class, were both teachers. “Grandma and Grandpa really enjoy class,” he says. “It’s changed our relationship. It’s something we share now and we do it so often. As teachers, they understand the sacrifices behind the scenes, on top of the other stuff like this being a free thing.”
"Some Eurasians think Kristang is just Portuguese. But it's clearly two different systems. So it's a lot of work, but very meaningful work." – Kevin Martens Wong
Misconceptions about Kristang
When I ask him about the misconceptions about Kristang he’s encountered, Kevin laughs. He speaks with good humour about he has met people who believe that Singlish, Mandarin, Malay and Kristang have no grammar. I am amazed to hear from him that these are Singaporeans from all walks of life.
“Of the reasons [they think this] is because these languages don’t have grammar the way English does, like verb conjugations. Malay for instance, doesn’t have this. But beyond that, grammar is more than just verb conjugations. It’s about how the language works. The fact that we know when sentences sound weird or ungrammatical in Singlish shows that Singlish has its own rules and restrictions, just as Malay and Mandarin do.
“The other more insidious myth is that English is the best language to be using and speaking because it’s clearly dominant now. That’s a lame argument. Languages come and go. They say it’s the language of science, the language of business, so you should just speak English, who cares about these other languages? English is the language of business and science not because it was always going to be. It’s the product of social factors, some geography, some environment. And you can’t say that English is inherently better than any other language. It just happens to be the language that’s in ascendance right now. We don’t know what the situation will be in 100, 200 years from now.”
Then there’s also the mistaken belief that languages are set in stone. “How did we come to have words like sushi or mocha then?” asks Kevin. “Words come and go.”
“Some Eurasians think Kristang is just Portuguese. But it’s clearly two different systems. So it’s a lot of work, but very meaningful work.”
One of the most challenging perspectives he deals with are from those who ask why they bother learning (and teaching) Kristang, when they should just learn Portuguese, those who insist that Kristang is just broken Portuguese, or say that creole languages are of no value because they are “so simple”.
How he deals with this varies with the situation. But a lot of times, it starts with a conversation. “Changing mindsets often starts with understanding where the other person is coming from and I’ll grant that sometimes, my mindset get changed too. It’s about being able to sit down and talk about certain things. I find that Singaporeans are willing to take you more seriously when you are not hypocritical. So I have to mean it when I say that Singlish is a language worth using; I have to mean it when I say I think it’s very important to learn the languages of people you may not associate with but you may run in to at work and developing that broader cultural appreciation, especially in the kind of place we live in.”
One cool thing is the initiative is starting to have a ripple effect. A student from the Kristang class, Singaporean Hafiz Rashid, ran his own Boyanese language workshop last month.
I ask Kevin about challenges. “Sustainability,” he says, without hesitation. “We rely on the kindness of strangers for venues. Venue is always an issue. The NLB has generously supported us for one and a half years. Manpower has become less of an issue, with more people interested in teaching, which is nice. And the time commitment.”
Right now, they are looking for a new venue, preferably near a train station, “because that’s easier for the older people”. And they are hoping for a city location, for the convenience.
The biggest challenge for the language is to get kids in the classes, at kindergarten age. “Because we will always be L2 [second language] speakers,” he says. “We wouldn’t have learned the language at home. For the language to keep going, the kids need to learn the language at home. And they need to not just learn it but to love it, so they use it for things. That is the big challenge for Kristang. We find that getting families to come together is really great because kids get positive role modelling from the parents.”
And what would be his ideal vision for Kristang in Singapore in 20 years?
“I’ll be 46 then. I’d love to see a huge body of Kristang books, graphic novels, music, more general awareness of Kristang in minute ways you don’t expect. It would be nice to be mentioned among the other languages, and if there’s greater public consciousness. I’d like for lots of families to be using it. Not at the expense of anything else, but alongside.”