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A Language Awakens

A once-forgotten language that was only spoken by a handful of elderly Eurasians in Singapore, Kristang has been revitalised through the efforts of Kevin Martens Wong.

Winner of President's Award for Volunteerism and/or Philanthropy (Individual, Youth Winner): Kevin Martens Wong

The older generation often laments how the youth are not keen on speaking their mother tongue or dialects. In Mr Kevin Martens Wong’s case, he took it one giant step further - by reigniting an interest in not just a language that his ancestors used to speak but one that had been considered declining for many generations.

Mr Wong is the pioneer of the Kodrah Kristang (Awaken, Kristang) long-term revitalisation initiative, which aims to bring back Kristang, the heritage language of the Portuguese-Eurasians. 

A linguistics major, Mr Wong has since raised the awareness and profile of this once-forgotten language that was spoken by only a handful of about 100 elderly Eurasians in Singapore. In March 2016, working together with one of these remaining speakers, Mr Bernard Mesenas, Mr Wong launched the first adult Kristang class, which has since seen over 300 students, young and old, hailing from various countries worldwide. To inject some fun into lessons, Mr Wong even created Ila-Ila di Sul (Southern Islands), the first Kristang board game set in the early 19th century where players compete to win the favour of the Temenggong of Singapore by accumulating treasure.

Mr Wong also went on to initiate Singapore’s first-ever first Kristang Language Festival, which saw Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean as its Gala Dinner guest of honour. To run the festival, Mr Wong and his team successfully raised over $100,000, mainly through government grants. The festival also led to a new sub-initiative called Lion City Languages which aims to provide a safe space for Singaporeans to talk about language revitalisation and how it can continue to go forward.

 Mr Wong’s work has also revitalised friendships within the Eurasian community; But he hopes it goes beyond that. “We don’t really see Kodrah Kristang as a Eurasian enterprise but more of a Singaporean one, Singaporeans from all walks of life coming together to preserve an aspect of our shared heritage,” he adds.

Mr Wong’s efforts have already crossed borders and he is currently the first sitting Singaporean in the CoLang Advisory Circle, an international non-profit group that develops new initiatives for the documentation, maintenance and revitalisation of the more than 4,000 endangered languages around the world.

 Moving ahead

Kodrah Kristang is now in Phase 2 of a 30-year Revitalisation Plan that aims to guide the initiative forward to 2045. Mr Wong hopes to expand on the community of speakers he has built up, raising their fluency level, as well as continuing to introduce more new learners with more classes. In the pipeline: a documentary on Kristang and even the first Kristang graphic novel.