The National and the Local in the Language Ecology of Multilingual Societies: the Case of the Penan in Borneo

Peter Giffard Sercombe

Newcastle University, United Kingdom


In a multilingual state (especially one in which there is a diverse number of minority ethnolinguistic groups) the official or national language(s) model advocated by a government may, for example, aspire to use of a single or restricted set of (officially endorsed) languages that are promoted through national institutions, including the law, media and, in particular, state education. Furthermore, state language education policy planning can frequently take little account of students who come from minority language backgrounds. These models and policies can differ markedly from patterns of community language knowledge and use (not withstanding patterns of knowledge and use among individuals), according to a range of social and cultural factors.

The Penan in Borneo are small in number and were, until relatively recently, hunter-gatherers and had not previously lived directly under the yoke of a national government. In the twenty-first century, there is unlikely to be a hunting and gathering community anywhere that has not, to a large degree, been affected by the rise of the nation state, and its frequent inclination towards national uniformity or even homogeneity.

Penan children’s entry into formal education influences and is influenced by their language environment. These children, from an ethnolinguistic minority, are under pressure to be multilingual and acquire sufficient command of the national media of education, if they are to progress academically, as well as in other aspects of their lives, and be allowed a degree of social and economic mobility.

This paper provides a case study of the Penan’s sociolinguistic position, based on primary research conducted in Brunei school classrooms and domestic settings, as well as in neighbouring Sarawak (in Malaysia). It considers the tensions, and consequences, that arise from national language and language education policies in relation to local language ecology contexts. In particular, this article describes challenges faced by Penan, in the light of state policies, while also considering the demands faced by policy makers; and how these, sometimes opposed (national and local), positions might better complement and support each other.

Session: Paper session
Planning/Policy 4 (Education)
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 14