Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.

– Benjamin Lee Whorf, American linguist

It is heartening to note that Iban language (jaku Iban) has been given due recognition. Starting from January 2007, it has been taught in Sarawak schools as a subject called ‘Bahasa Iban’ and as an examination paper in the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examination. And now it is taught to Form Six classes and as a Malaysian Higher School Certificate (STPM) exam paper using the code 6356.

Prior to this, the subject was offered in several schools — mostly rural primary and secondary schools up to Form Three classes only. For example, in three schools that I headed early in my career, namely Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan (SMK) Sedaya Kanowit, SMK Saratok and SMK Julau, Bahasa Iban did help to elevate students’ scores in their Lower Education Certificate (SRP/PMR) examinations.

During our primary school days in the early 60s, we were also taught the language — I remember well the main character Bada in the textbook. It was taught in simple and kid-centric Iban such as using funny examples and sentences like Bada jaga gajah or “Bada looks after (or guards) an elephant”, an unlikely scene in elephant-less Sarawak. But we did have a good laugh about it. Jaku Iban wasn’t made an examination subject in the Primary Four and Primary Six Assessment Tests.

That having been said, the subject was actually introduced to primary and secondary schools starting respectively from 1957 and 1963.

Currently, there are reportedly over 33,000 secondary students taking the subject and about 24,000 primary pupils learning it. In the Standard Primary School Curriculum 2011, Bahasa Iban is a compulsory elective subject like Bahasa Arab, Bahasa Cina, Bahasa Tamil, Bahasa Semai and Bahasa Kadazandusun.

For the higher learning institutions, Universiti Perguruan Sultan Idris (Upsi) in Tanjung Malim, Perak had started accepting 20 students to study Bahasa Iban for its 2010/2011 intake.

Its four-year degree students would major in Bahasa Malaysia and do Bahasa Iban as a minor subject. They will teach in secondary schools after graduation. Now, after nearly 10 years, such arrangement has produced hundreds of qualified Bahasa Iban subject teachers.

In Sarawak, two teachers’ colleges, namely IPG Miri and IPG Rejang, have also trained qualified Bahasa Iban teachers starting with their respective first batches of 30 and 25 in 2010.

On the universality of the lban lingo, apart from the 750,00 native speakers in Sarawak, there are roughly over three million in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan (Kalbar), about 40,000 in Johor, a few hundred in Sabah and some 20,000 in Brunei districts of Belait, Tutong, Muara and Temburong.

Most of those in Temburong, led by Pehin Empading — I met him in 1999 — were children of immigrants from Krian and Saribas as well as other districts in Sarawak.

The original immigrants were no more around by the time I visited a Temburong settlement for Gawai Dayak in 1999. Their accent is similar to ours with some differentiations pertaining to names of various items and terminologies too.

Our Indonesian counterparts speak with a mixed accent but their Iban is authentic. After all, Kapuas basin was the birthplace of our ancestors.

It was a privilege when I spent two working weeks and at least a month of stay with two of them to whom I am related to by marriage. This was in 1972. Our two working weeks were spent as labourers — earning RM4.50 per day — at the construction site of Sarawak House in Sibu.

I learnt some Indonesian dialects from them, including Maloh and Kantu apart from the art of making/weaving fishing net (jala).

Being a universal language, Iban tends to help us to expand one’s horizon and at the same time, making new friends.

When my article ‘Dayak confusion in Brunei’ was published in The Borneo Bulletin, a Brunei Iban police inspector by the name of Jipun called from his office. He commended my writing and invited me for coffee. He was born in the sultanate but his deceased parents were from Betong. We bonded immediately.

So those speaking Iban can easily understand each other despite our parochial accent. This is a testament of the language’s universal status. It is also the lingua franca for most Sarawak’s rural districts.

One would hear Chinese parents scolding their kids in Iban in places like Saratok, Debak, Roban, Betong, Lubok Antu, Engkilili, Julau, Kanowit, Song, Kapit and elsewhere.

In 2006, I was tasked with starting Berita Iban, a pull-out of Utusan Borneo. It was very challenging but rewarding. Nevertheless, I still have a lot to learn, despite getting press awards (Iban News Reporting) for five consecutive years.

Learning is an interminable process.