Posted by: irmayasari | September 7, 2009

John’s case: when a little boy imitates his grandma’s talk

Yesterday, there was a social gathering for my West Papuan community in Canberra to celebrate Father’s day. When I was there, I noticed that there is a small talk among the West Papuans who were brought up in Australia about a three-year little boy called John* (not the real name). John, in fact, is the third-generation of West Papuan from his mother’s side living in Canberra. Yet his mother does not introduce John to Papuan Malay; a variety of Malay in West Papuan area served as the lingua franca. It is because his mother since 5 years old was brought up here and  she understands when the West Papuan speak this variety yet she cannot speak.

The West Papuans community brought up in Canberra especially Xavier’s mother called Mary* (not the real name) and her cousins are afraid of  John’s accent, word-choice and his code-switching is not like what the boy in his age should have. They are afraid that this little boy will not be understood when he enters school. Their anxiety happens because her mother has noticed that when John played in the playground or joined to other children, they could not understand what John meant because of his accent and his mother has assumed that it was because John has spent much time with his grandmother from his mother’s side and his grandmother speaks more in either Papuan Malay or Kupang Malay (Bahasa Kupang) from East Nusa Tenggara in Indonesia. John’s mother has reckoned that it is too risky to put her son to be influenced by other languages in this age. That is why, his mother has asked John’s grandmother to stop teaching John any words.

 When this talk becomes so exciting, suddenly, Mary’s aunt told a story about the childhood time of Mary and her cousins when they had just came from Vanuatu and when they used Bislamat every time they spoke (Vanuatu’s lingua franca) and also another story of Mary’s auntie’s older children when they had moved from Netherland to Vanuatu and then to Australia and their accent was so different but after time passed by, they could manage to speak like other Australians because of the peer influence at school, yet they can still talk in other languages.

 The talk makes me think about my critical response article about Belait-speaking parents in employing code-switching when they speak to their children in Belait-speaking People in Northern Borneo (Brunei); an article written by Peter Martin in Australian Journal of Linguistics vol.25, no.1 April 2005 page 109 – 125. John’s case in which he influences by his grandmother to Malay varieties reminds me about Martin’s statement that in some cases he found, “even in the urban context, grandparents can be seen to counterbalance the deliberate efforts made by the parents not to transmit the Belait Language to their children.” (Martin 2005: 117). In addition, the reaction of John’s mother to his son’s utterance and the request to the boy’s grandmother to stop using non-English languages when speaking to John is quite similar to what Martin sees in the case study in Belait-Speaking people since the parents choose to speak in Malay to their children and avoid the using of Belait in order to help the children understanding Malay. It is because Malay is the language of instruction in the early year of education in Northern Borneo and those who can speak it can compete for a better life (Martin 2005: 113).

John’s case, to some extent, reminds me about the different perspective of community in viewing the code-switching and bilingualism which it depends on the purpose and advantages of the code-switching and bilingualism in particular community.



 Martin, Peter. (2005). Language Shift and Code-mixing: A Case Study from Northern Borneo. Australian Journal of Linguistics Vol. 25, No. 1, April 2005, pp. 109 – 125. (Online version). Retrieved from


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