Conserving her heritage language

For Dr Nala Lee, the topic of language endangerment is one that is close to the heart. The NUS alumna and Assistant Professor of Linguistics is Peranakan Chinese by birth and her heritage language is Baba Malay, which has been critically endangered since the 1980s.

Reflecting on her childhood, when Baba Malay was already facing the brunt of endangerment, Dr Lee shared: “When I was much younger, I did not know I was Peranakan Chinese because it was naturalised that we would do certain things in very different ways.”

She continued, “The older members of the family would wear the sarong kebaya, whereas other families would dress up in cheongsams for Chinese New Year. We would be hearing older members of the family speak Baba Malay and not other Chinese dialects or languages. It was only much later that I realized that we were Peranakan Chinese and a very different being from other Chinese groups in Singapore.”

It was this connection with her heritage, together with community and family support, that led her to eventually choose to focus on Baba Malay for her PhD in Linguistics dissertation at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa.

Contributing hope for Baba Malay

Since 2011, Dr Lee has been carrying out language documentation work on Baba Malay. She has documented and archived hundreds of hours of Baba Malay conversations and stories, and the work continues. She adds, “I am archiving into perpetuity so that younger generations can listen to what Baba Malay sounds like, and hopefully, it would pique their interest in the language.”

Her Baba Malay grammar has also been used as the basis for pedagogical work to revitalise the language.

She also teaches a language documentation class at the Department of English, Linguistics and Theatre Studies, formerly the Department of English Language and Literature. “I teach tools with which language documentation can be carried out for any community, such as those for dictionary making and transcription, so that students who are interested are able to go home and document their own heritage language.”