Saving Kristang Before It Disappears

Saving Kristang Before It Disappears

Friday, 10 August 2018

By Mr Kevin Martens Wong Zhi Qiang, PGDE (Secondary), National Institute of Education


Singapore is a melting pot of cultures, communities and languages, but only a relative few today may have heard – or even heard of – one of Singapore’s fast-fading tongues. 

This is Kristang, a 500-year-old language that has its origins in the Portuguese conquest of Melaka in 1511 and subsequent intermarriages between arriving Portuguese colonists and local Malays.

Like its parent community, the Portuguese-Eurasians, Kristang is a mix of different influences – it has a large vocabulary derived from Portuguese and strong grammatical influences from Malay and Hokkien, with a number of Cantonese, Dutch and even Malayalam words.

English has long since displaced Kristang in the Singapore Eurasian community but thanks to a young team led by an NIE PGDE trainee, a revitalization effort for this imperiled language is now taking place. 

Kevin Martens Wong, a student teacher (December 2017 PGDE batch) of Portuguese-Eurasian descent through his mother, stumbled upon Kristang while writing a magazine feature on endangered languages in the region. 

Discovering its dire status in Singapore, he initiated a structured, youth-led effort to preserve the declining language. He acquired the language himself first from documentation efforts with remaining Kristang speakers and in March 2016, introduced a 30-year revitalization plan centered on classes for Kristang.

Festa organising team

Organized by the Kodrah Kristang (‘Awaken, Kristang’) team, the free Kristang classes – now on its 10th iteration – have taught the language to more than 500 Singaporeans of all races and ages in the last two years. 

Largely informed by Task-Based Language Teaching and Communicative Language Teaching models, these Kristang classes follow a structured 160-hour curriculum across eight modules, with games and activities that encourage people of different backgrounds to interact with each other in Kristang.

The model evolved after Wong and his team realized the importance of inculcating a joy of learning while developing strong and meaningful friendships between students. Wong believes that this combination will help ensure that the language lives on for future generations. 

“What make people come back for the classes are the games, the interaction and the element of fun,” he says. 

“Our classes have thus become a focal point for this new community that is interested in keeping Kristang going, because people have been able to develop new and meaningful friendships through the lessons, while also developing their ability in Kristang.”

Wong’s team has gone on to create additional resources and materials in Kristang, including an audio course, a board game, an open-access online dictionary, a pilot children’s class, and an upcoming graphic novel. In May 2017, they held a language festival attended by more than 1,400 people and with DPM Teo Chee Hean as Guest-of-Honour. 

For his efforts, Wong received the President’s Volunteer and Philanthropy Award for Youth and the Lee Hsien Loong Award for Outstanding All-Round Achievement in 2017. 

Meanwhile, the Kodrah Kristang initiative is now making waves beyond the Kristang community in Singapore. The classes’ pedagogy is being adopted by similar efforts for the Baba Malay, Boyanese and Bugis languages, and further serves as a model for other communities worldwide, such as in Macau. 

Visit for more information on Kodrah Kristang and Kristang language classes, including details on how to sign up for the next beginners’ course.