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Changing the Language Ecology of

Kadazandusun: The Role of the

Kadazandusun Language Foundation

Rita Lasimbang and Trixie Kinajil

Kadazandusun Language Foundation, PO Box 420, 89507 Penampang, Sabah,

This article examines the role the Kadazandusun Language Foundation has played in
changing the language ecology of the Kadazandusun language. Over the period of the
last 15 years, the state of the Kadazandusun language has undergone major progression
that includes the making of a trilingual Kadazan Dusun–Malay–English dictionary.
This article also relates to the impact the language situation has had on changing atti-
tudes toward mother-tongue use in the Kadazandusun community.

Sociolinguistic Background

There are 138 languages in Malaysia,2 of which 54 are indigenous to Sabah

(Grimes, 1996). Thirteen of these indigenous languages are classified under the
Dusunic language family.3 There are no current data for language from the recent
national census, but according to the 1999 Sabah census projection, speakers of
Kadazan/Dusun ethnicity should have numbered 750,000 by 2000 – making
Kadazan and Dusun the largest single language community in the State.
Speakers of the Kadazan/Dusun language are mainly found along the west coast
of Sabah and also extending some distance inland (see Banker & Banker, 1984 for
‘Kadazan’ and ‘Dusun’ in this article are terms that various groups of people
who speak varieties of this language have come to call themselves. The term
‘Kadazandusun’ is the conjoined term decided on as the official name of the
shared language – the standard language – that has been introduced in Sabah
schools. More recently, the word has been used as a general umbrella term for
both Kadazan and Dusun people, and as a loose term for all languages in the
Dusunic language family.
According to Banker and Banker (1984), the Kadazan/Dusun language
consists of a chain of dialects that are reasonably understood by neighbouring
communities. But because the language differs in varying degrees, communica-
tion between members from one end of the chain to the other may be more diffi-
cult, e.g. between Coastal Kadazan speakers in the south, and Central Dusun
speakers in the north.
Bahasa Malaysia, the national language of Malaysia since 1963 (Omar, 1984),
was selected on the basis of having the greatest number of speakers – at the time
the Malay people made up more than half of the population of Peninsular Malay-
sia. However, Sabah on the island of Borneo, with 80% of its population made up

1466-4208/00/03 0415-00 $16.00/0 ©2000 R. Lasimbang and T. Kinajil


416 Current Issues in Language Planning

of indigenous ethnic groups,4 presents a host of ethnic languages to choose from

when selecting a lingua franca for that region.

The Kadazandusun Language

The Penampang populace – south-east of the capital Kota Kinabalu – was
first introduced to literacy through the school-building efforts of Mill Hill
Missionaries who arrived in the early 1880s.5 However, World War II inter-
rupted these educational efforts. Mission schools were resiliently set up again
after the war. These schools were known as Native Voluntary Schools in the
1960s. They appealed greatly to the local Kadazan and Dusun folk because they
‘opted to teach literacy to rural folk initially through their local Kadazan or
Dusun dialect only shifting gradually by the third or fourth year into English’
(Reid, 1997).
The Kadazan language underwent vast developments post-war. The year
1953 saw the Kadazan language introduced in the all-English newspaper Sabah
Times. The following year Radio Sabah started a Kadazan programme that ran
for 15 minutes daily, increasing to 14 hours per week in 1960 (Reid, 1997). The
1960s saw massive publication of literature. The earliest record of a Kadazan
publication was Samuel Majalang’s Tanong do Kadazan [Kadazan Stories], which
was published by the Borneo Literature Bureau in 1962.
During the Nationalism era (after joining Malaya in 1963), mother-tongue
development went into decline as emphasis was put on the acquisition of the
national language, Bahasa Malaysia (Malay). To safeguard social and economic
interests as well as to assist assimilation into the fast-growing Malaysian culture,
Kadazan/Dusun parents had begun to allow the use of the Malay language in
the home. However, this move did more harm than good when code-mixing
became evident, slowly removing the need to converse in the mother tongue
(Lasimbang, 1996).
The Kadazan/Dusun community only began to identify with the now-appar-
ent language loss in the early 1980s. By then, the infiltration of ‘broken’ Kadazan
and Dusun songs into the music industry had added further damage to the situa-
tion. Their fun and catchy tunes belied the growing disparaging view held
against mother-tongue use by many Kadazan/Dusun speakers.
Therefore, as has happened in many other language situations around the
world (see, e.g. Mühlhäusler, 1996), modernisation and development has meant
that the ecology of the Kadazan/Dusun language chains was breaking down and
powerful new languages were entering that ecology (i.e. Bahasa Malaysia,

Cultural factors in the changing ecology of the Kadazandusun

A new sustaining ecology for the language family was also slow to develop, as
the process of forming a common nomenclature was a difficult one. According to
Lasimbang and Miller (1990), this was seen as early as 1886 in the problematic
‘language labelling’ exercise conducted by various groups amongst the indige-
nous population of North Borneo. Members of groups could not agree on a
Changing the Language Ecology of Kadazandusun 417

common language/ethnic group label, nor could they agree to the labels outsid-
ers had for them. Since language labelling works only if members of a group are
open to it (Lasimbang & Miller, 1990), the not un-alike Kadazan and Dusun
communities had to contend with the continuing pressure to arrive at a single
way of identifying themselves.
By the 1960s it became obvious that this dilemma was also causing problems
for the preservation of the mother tongue. While the desire for mother-tongue
education was central to both communities, the touchy subject of identity –
whether Kadazan or Dusun (Reid, 1997) – created confusion as to how to go
about the matter. The following decade saw more ambivalence to mother-tongue
issues and to cultural identity for that matter. Finally, in 1985 there was a break-
through with the crucial decisions being taken on orthography and, in 1995, the
standardisation of dialects materialised. With that, a close approach to a wider
group identity was achieved.
In the following sections, we discuss how this new language ecology has
begun to emerge.

Orthography and dialects standardisation issues

The 100-year old initial Kadazan orthography was standardised in 1985,
based on the orthography decisions by the Kadazan Cultural Association
(KCA) Language Sub-Committee in 1984. The amendments to the orthography
included the writing of the glottal stop whenever it occurs, the marking of
plosives, e.g. b and d, uniformity in the use of hyphens, spelling of particles or
clitics, and decisions on the use of varying spellings (Miller & Miller, 1983,
The KCA began the first application of the standardised Kadazan orthogra-
phy during the 1985 publication of books from a Kadazan Children’s Literature
Production Workshop. In 1987, the biggest application of the standardised
orthography was made in the update of Antonissen’s 1958 Kadazan Dictionary
and Grammar. The update was manifested in the first-ever linguistic and trilin-
gual Kadazan Dusun–Malay–English Dictionary.
In 1988, much encouraged by the outcome of a language survey conducted
amongst Kadazan children, the KCA began to make efforts to request that the
Kadazan language be taught in schools. The survey revealed that the Kadazan
community had long wanted their language to be taught in schools but that their
desire for this had never been made public (Lasimbang et al., 1992). That same
year, the Minister of Education made a statement that the study of languages
such as Kadazan might be incorporated into the school syllabus.6 This raised
great hopes within the Kadazan/Dusun community. However, the long-stand-
ing issue of standardisation of the various dialects within the Dusunic language
family still needed to be resolved before this could occur.
Therefore, the following year a symposium, Towards the Standardisation of
the Kadazan Dialects, organised by KCA, was held to examine the matter. But
old differences quickly cropped up on which label to use for the standard
language – whether Kadazan or Dusun. All too soon, conflicting views of iden-
tity had shelved the issue of standardisation and with it, the hope of teaching the
Kadazan language in schools.
418 Current Issues in Language Planning

The re-introduction of the Kadazandusun language in Sabah schools

Nevertheless, in September 1990, various efforts to include the Kadazan
language in schools were once again put forward,7 but none of these efforts were
fruitful. The idea of the re-introduction of the Kadazan language in schools was
not revived until 1994, when a concerned Member of Parliament and a
Kadazandusun himself, YB [Honourable] Tan Sri Bernard G. Dompok, began
seriously pursuing the matter.8
At that time, however, with no provision for the Kadazan language to be
taught in public schools, a private class was proposed and set up under the trad-
ing licence of the Kadazan Language Centre (KLC). Nonetheless, YB Tan Sri
Bernard G. Dompok continued pushing for the teaching of the Kadazandusun
language and succeeded in the re-introduction of the Kadazan/Dusun language
in schools in April 1995.9
However, the problem of the old ‘name game’ – the need to define the new
language ecology – still lacked a definitive resolution. The Sabah Education
Department played the mediator for the two cultural custodians – the Kadazan
Dusun Cultural Association and the United Sabah Dusun Association – on
the decision for the name of the standard language that was to be taught in
schools. The compromise went on to document the combined term
‘Kadazandusun’ as the official name of the shared language, 10 at the same
time solving the issue of standardisation of dialects within the Dusunic
language family.
In 2000, the Kadazandusun language was being taught to 19,731 children by
881 trained teachers, in 440 primary schools in 21 districts throughout the State of

The Role of the Kadazandusun Language Foundation

With these official developments in progress, the time had come for the KLC
(now called the Kadazandusun Language Centre) to expand its functions. In
order to ensure continued efforts to preserve, develop and promote the
Kadazandusun language, an official language body to monitor and coordinate
language work needed to be set up. In December 1994, the first five trustees-to-be
met to discuss the formation and registration of a trust for the Kadazandusun
Language Foundation (KLF). On 20 June 1995, the KLF’s joint trustees were
granted a Certificate of Incorporation under the Trustees (Incorporation) Ordi-
nance 1951 Cap. 148 (Sabah).
The KLF’s objectives are wide-ranging and are subdivided into four
programme areas: Linguistics and Anthropology; Literacy and Literature;
Translation and Community Service; and Training and Development.
Since its establishment, the KLF has been particularly concerned with mobilis-
ing the Kadazandusun community towards taking increasing responsibility for
the development of the language. The KLF recognises that community involve-
ment in and acceptance of its work is vital to the survival of the Kadazandusun
language. To this end, the following language activities have been conducted by
the KLF to ensure positive involvement by the community in the directions the
Kadazandusun language is taking.
Changing the Language Ecology of Kadazandusun 419

Imparting basic linguistic knowledge

The KLF has taught several groups from a variety of backgrounds the basic
linguistic aspects of their mother tongue. Aside from primary school teachers,
who needed to understand the linguistic components of the Kadazandusun
language before being sufficiently confident to teach the subject in schools,
participants have also included journalists, school-aged children, young work-
ing adults, pre-school teachers and tertiary-level instructors.
These input sessions are often coordinated by the respective
Kadazandusun communities themselves; for example, the KLF continues to
be called upon to provide input on linguistics in a yearly teacher-training
workshop held by Suausindak, a Community Pre-school. Suausindak was the
first school in Sabah to offer Kadazandusun language classes to pre-school
age children.

Providing technical support, advice and consultancy

Once it was agreed to go ahead with the teaching of the Kadazandusun
language in schools, the Sabah Education Department called upon the KLF to
provide technical advice and consultancy. The KLF first began to provide this
service in April 1995 to key personnel from the Department in the first
national-level meeting to draft the Kadazandusun language curriculum. The
KLF continues to provide technical consultancy to the Sabah Education Depart-
ment on a needs basis.
The KLF has also assisted the University of Malaysia Sabah in the preparation
of their Kadazandusun language classes, which they offered as an elective in
1998. Perwira Tuition Centre, a local organisation that offered conversational
Kadazandusun language courses, was also given assistance in setting up their
On the occasion of the yearly Harvest Festival (a traditional Kadazandusun
celebration), district level and village level committees have continued to seek
the KLF’s advice on judging criteria and the suitability of material used in read-
ing and story-telling competitions. The KLF is also often invited to head the judg-
ing panel.

Providing funding support

The KLF has also assisted the Sabah Education Department in acquiring fund-
ing for running Kadazandusun language teachers’ district-level in-house train-
ing programmes. Up to now, the KLF has channelled 29 funding packages to the
districts that required them, as well as providing additional funds for a major
centralised training programme held in 1998. The KLF continues to look for
funding opportunities to support training requests of Kadazandusun language
teachers in schools. Another request by the Sabah Education Department for
language materials saw the KLF raising funds to purchase 100 copies of the
‘Kadazan Dusun–Malay–English Dictionary’ in 1999. A second ‘Dictionary
Drive’ is to be conducted shortly. Where possible, the KLF also sponsors
language materials for school-level language activities/competitions.
420 Current Issues in Language Planning

Production of local literature

The KLF has undertaken a publishing role that had been badly needed in the
Kadazandusun community. It serves as an official outlet for the production of
vernacular books, with the hope that in this way much of Kadazandusun oral
tradition could be preserved. To date, 21 titles have been published and circu-
lated. By increasing the production of mother-tongue literature, the KLF contin-
ues to tap into local talent for materials written in the mother tongue. By
conducting a yearly writing competition, members of the community have been
encouraged to put folktales and short stories down in writing. Since 1996,
winning entries in the competition have been compiled into volumes and made
available at book fairs and exhibitions.

Training workshops
Training and workshops have been highly useful in mobilising more commu-
nity involvement in mother-tongue preservation. For a new supportive
language ecology to develop, human resource development and the transference
of skills must take root. To push for this ideal, the KLF has conducted writers’
workshops to address the development of literature in the mother tongue. The
aim is to increase writers’ motivation as well as to provide them with the skills to
produce literature to support local education efforts.
To enable writers to tap into information found in source languages, a transla-
tion workshop has been conducted where translation principles are taught.
Editors’ training and workshops are also conducted to add to the skills of the
body of local writers. It is hoped that this will help to ease the backlog of publica-
tion since more members of the community will be confident and able to assist in
the publishing component of literature production. The KLF also has organised a
Shell Book Production Workshop to introduce the technique of producing
massive numbers of books in a short period of time using a template (shell). The
Shell Book technique has been useful in the instruction of basic concepts such as
health and hygiene for beginning literates.

In setting up a Local Writers’ and Illustrators’ Network, the KLF has encour-
aged local writers and illustrators to forge their like-minded ideas together. This
network, begun in 1997, has the potential to become a strong advocate for
preserving and promoting the mother tongue.

Providing translation services

Over the years, the KLF has provided major translation services to several
government agencies that needed them, e.g. the translation of health materials,
speeches, advertisements and patriotic songs into Kadazandusun.
There is a growing awareness of the possibilities of using the Kadazandusun
language to address a wider audience or to market materials or ideas. In the use
of health pamphlets amongst rural communities in particular, it is especially
important to be able to provide instruction in the mother tongue, as there is a
great likelihood that clients only have basic literacy acquisition. The written text
Changing the Language Ecology of Kadazandusun 421

then will be extremely useful to both Kadazandusun and non-Kadazandusun

health personnel.

Preserving oral tradition

It has been suggested by some scholars that once a non-literate community
becomes literate, it will abandon its oral tradition (cf. the discussion in Crowley,
this volume). That has not been the case in the Kadazandusun community.
Rather, the strong desire to draw out this oral component of the culture has been
evident in community participation in events such as the Humius (Traditional
Kadazandusun Singing) and Mananong (Traditional Kadazandusun Story-tell-
ing) conducted by the KLF.
For example, a Humius event in June 2000 involved as many as 24 partici-
pants, most of whom were Bobohizan (Kadazandusun priestesses) and elders in
the community. Traditional songs as in ritual chanting and songs traditionally
sung in community gatherings were performed. It was truly a celebration of oral
tradition as the Kadazandusun community heard it in its original form – the
expression of culture found in traditional songs.
In an earlier event, a Mananong demonstration was held to impart story-tell-
ing skills to Kadazandusun language teachers who coach their students yearly
for a Traditional Kadazandusun Story-Telling Competition. Observations of this
activity countered the finding that school students were strongly influenced by
Malay or English language story-telling styles, e.g. in voice modulation, intona-
tion, pitch, etc.
Both events have been videotaped and properly recorded, i.e. transcribed and
translated for cultural posterity. The Kadazandusun community is proud that
samples of oral tradition within the community have been preserved, and that
the KLF has maintained equal interest in the promotion of the rich oral tradition
of the Kadazandusun people.

Production of language-learning software

A major first in terms of Kadazandusun language development in the age of
computers has been the production of the ‘Learning Kadazandusun’ CD-ROM.
Produced in January 2000, it displayed the ability of the Kadazandusun language
to respond to the changing needs of the Kadazandusun community and even the
wider public. The CD-ROM has also given welcomed prestige to the relatively
new Kadazandusun language efforts.

The KLF’s role in helping to map out the changing ecology in which the
Kadazandusun language is now located has been well defined and given due
recognition by both the Federal and State governments. As a coordinating
language body, the KLF’s role has also given the Kadazandusun community the
firm assurance that language maintenance will be supported. In addition to this
great responsibility, the KLF must also bear an added role in the promotion of a
future-oriented outlook for Kadazandusun language development.
For this to happen there is a need for further study of community responses to
the Kadazandusun language, e.g. acceptance or rejection of the label
422 Current Issues in Language Planning

‘Kadazandusun’, the teaching of the standard language in schools, and parental

support or lack thereof for language use at home. This will enable the KLF to
further understand the perspective of the Kadazandusun community and enable
it to meet new community needs as they arise.
Understanding and working with the community on its mother tongue needs
will also encourage ecologically sound language planning and policies to assist
practitioners at all levels of language development. Perhaps of paramount
importance in the short term is the need to understand whether the community
has accepted the Kadazandusun language as a standard language. Acceptance
would indicate that the standard language is in its final stage of development
(Lasimbang, 1998).
This paper has provided an example of the role that community-based
language planning bodies like the KLF can have in sustaining language ecolo-
gies. There are great expectations from those involved in the KLF and in the pres-
ervation of the Kadazandusun language that a viable language ecology can be
developed and sustained. However, the ultimate outcome of this will be known
when the Kadazandusun language is finally accepted, publicly acknowledged
and fully owned by the Kadazandusun community itself.

1. We wish to thank Associate Professor Richard B. Baldauf Jr of the University of
Sydney for his kind assistance in the preparation of this article.
2. UNESCO statistics (1998) –
3. SIL/Malaysia Branch, Revised ‘List of Western Austronesian Languages and Dialects
in Sabah’ March 1996: Kota Kinabalu.
4. Yearbook of Statistics – Sabah (1999 projection) p. 15.
5. St. Michael’s Parish Jubilee Celebration Souvenir Book, July 2000, Penampang, Sabah.
p. 12
6. Sabah Times. 19 November 1988. ‘Kadazan in school?’
7. Borneo Mail. 11 March 1999. ‘Kadazandusun language earns degree of recognition.’
8. Borneo Mail. 5 June 1994. ‘PDS to push for classes in schools.’
9. Daily Express. 4 April 1995. ‘Federal govt’s move on Kadazandusun lauded.’
10. ‘Perjanjian Perisytiharan Bahasa Kadazandusun sebagai Bahasa Rasmi’ [Declaration
of Agreement that ‘Kadazandusun’ is Official language] 24 January 1995.
11. Launching speech of YB Tan Sri Bernard G. Dompok, Minister in the Prime Minister’s
Department, during the Kadazandusun Language Week 2000 organised by the Sabah
State Library Borneo Mail 20 June 2000. ‘No Place for Opposition’.

Any correspondence should be directed to Ms Rita Lasimbang,
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The Authors
Rita Lasimbang is Chief Executive Officer of the Kadazandusun Language
Foundation after serving as Curator at the Department of Sabah Museum. She
has served as a project coordinator and linguistic consultant in the compilation of
the Kadazan Dusun–Malay–English Dictionary, a major application of the stand-
ardised Kadazan orthography. She maintains active involvement in the
nation-wide Database of Indigenous Terms Project coordinated by the Institute
of National Language and Literature in Malaysia [Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka].
Trixie Kinajil has been a Research Officer at the Kadazandusun Language
Foundation since 1998. Previously she taught English Language in a local
secondary school. For her training in Child Development she practised at Parent
Educational Services, Kamehameha Schools, Hawaii, on how to observe their
children’s development; and at Michigan Database, a data bank and research
unit at Michigan State University, where she helped prepare statistical data for a
needs project on childcare.