Government indifference hindering literacy in local languages

A. Chaedar Alwasilah, Bandung | Opinion | Sat, July 07 2012, 7:48 AM

Paper Edition | Page: 6

Every year the Rancage cultural foundation awards a short-list of people who have published the best literary works in Sundanese, Javanese, Balinese and Lampungese. The award is also conferred on those who have demonstrated loyalty and commitment to the development of those local languages. The latest award conferral took place at UNNES (Semarang State University) in May.

A year-long and meticulous evaluation of literary publications in the local languages as well as of services and dedication by individuals or institutions to local language development has acknowledged the best masterpieces and the most prominent figures in vernacular literacy development.

Thus far the Rancage foundation has selected 59 award-winning pieces of fiction and poems in those languages, 12 children’s story books in Sundanese and 57 people and institutions who have demonstrated a life-long contribution to the development and cultivation of local languages in particular and traditional cultures in general.

The foundation has consistently granted the award for 24 years. It has made extraordinary efforts to develop vernacular literacy in Indonesia.

Ajip Rosidi, the founder of the Rancage Foundation, is concerned about the fading pride in local languages especially among the youth. It is commonly believed that local languages lack rigor and prestige for daily communication, let alone for developing science and technology.

Evidently that assumption reflects the negative attitude toward local languages, usually including their cultures.

The foundation has persistently attempted to prove that local languages have the potential to be a medium of education and cultural revitalization. It is admitted, though, that it will take years to change that attitude.

At home, especially in big cities, parents and children prefer to exchange in Indonesian rather than local languages. It is feared that this phenomenon will lead to the extinction of local languages.

Normally our politicians and government officials are proud when distinguishing Indonesia as a multilingual and multicultural country, as well as the third largest democratic country in the world.

Their pride however seems to be lip service and unsubstantiated as evidence shows that the linguistic rights of vernacular languages have been violated.

For almost a quarter of a century the Rancage Foundation has voluntarily and independently promoted literacy in vernacular languages. Despite the media coverage of the award conferral ceremony there has been barely any significant contribution from the local and central governments.

I would go so far as to say that with regard to local language preservation, the government tends to leave it to the speakers’ communities.

There are more than 700 languages scattered over about 17,000 islands in Indonesia, yet only four languages are well maintained. Unless strategic policy is made, all the other languages will slowly but surely vanish.

While the Indonesian language plays a unifying role in the country as one of the world’s most culturally diverse countries, local languages are a remarkable index of its culture. Education is a process where students consciously learn about their own culture and then other cultures.

The Indonesian language is a nationalist symbol while local languages are cultural symbols. Both languages should be used proportionally for cultural and national development.

Given that local languages as cultural heritage should be preserved and developed it is no wonder that UNESCO has declared Feb. 21 the world mother tongue day.

Rancage is the Sundanese adjective for creative. The foundation has been hammering on the importance of developing creativity through creative writing in local languages. Many are reluctant to publish in a local language as it is not lucrative. However, it is a noble undertaking for cultural self-appreciation and development.

The award conferral is meant to encourage publications in local languages. The award winners are expected to be more productive and that publications in other local languages will follow through.

To date only in Sundanese, Javanese, and Balinese has literary publication been encouraging, with Sundanese publications topping the list, followed by Javanese and Balinese.

Creativity is individual and culture-sensitive. Students are most sensitive to their own culture when compared with other cultures. Reading fiction in a local language will develop linguistic as well as cultural sensitivity.

Such linguistic sensitivity is a good start for appreciating fiction in a second or third language. On the same line of argument, such cultural sensitivity is a head start for appreciating national culture and global cultures.

The Rancage award-winning books are exemplary masterpieces that have to be made available to the public, especially to school students. Fiction reading takes students on an imaginary journey, where imagination is practically unlimited.

Einstein once stated that imagination was more important than knowledge. Teachers therefore should use local language fiction to boost student imagination.

Blinded by the power of first language literature, most teachers take it easy and regard local languages as unessential. Literacy in Indonesian is developed without empowering cultural foundations embedded in students.

The current elementary curriculum can incorporate local content subjects.

By virtue of KTSP or school-based curriculum, teachers have freedom to develop learning materials. Many elementary schools, however, have used the local content slot for teaching English, which completely defeats the purpose. It would be wiser to use the slot for i culcating local wisdom in students, namely throrugh literature in their local language.

Next to publication is book provision for public use. The books — no matter how good they are — will be useless unless they are read. What the Rancage foundation has done is only half the battle. Those books have to be made available in schools and public libraries.

Specifically, the provincial governments of West Java, Central Java, East Java, Bali and Lampung have cultural obligations to promote their own cultural heritage to students as part of promoting nationalism and character building.

Quality books are to be shared by the whole nation. Those books should also be translated into Indonesian, so that all school students across Indonesia will get the benefit of reading them. That could be a manifestation of how the national culture is built on the foundation of regional cultures.

The writer is a professor at the Indonesian Education University (UPI) and member of board of higher education.

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