Indigenous language policy as a national cultural strategy

Setiono Sugiharto, Jakarta | Opinion | Mon, October 28 2013, 11:00 AM

The Congress on Indonesian Cultural Strategy, held recently from Oct. 8 to 11 in Yogyakarta, though laudable in its effort to seek appropriate cultural strategies to counter a globalist discourse, missed a fundamental issue: the looming threat of Indonesia’s disappearing local languages.

It has been estimated that some 700 local languages are in a moribund state, and that some 169 languages have less than 500 native speakers. This issue should have become a serious agenda item at the congress, given that local languages are part of cultural heritages that need to be preserved.

Various reasons have been proposed to account for the near-extinction of local languages spoken in various regions in the country. These causes are, among other things, inter-ethnic marriage, natural disasters and the speakers’ attitudes toward other dominant languages that trigger a language shift. These are all plausible reasons, and some people consider them as natural phenomena.

Yet, it is more plausible to argue that the threat of local language extinction is due to the sheer absence of minority language policy. With the absence of this policy, the protection of minority languages amid competition from other languages cannot be assured.

We certainly do have a national language policy, which was created by the then National Center for Language Development (Pusat Pembinaan dan Pengembangan Bahasa) in 1986. However, this policy was and is still being used only as a filter to find Bahasa Indonesia equivalents of foreign language terminologies, which at that time were deemed too excessive and threatening to the survival of the national language, i.e. Bahasa Indonesia.

It needs to be highlighted that this policy was created during the chairmanship of the late arch-demon Anton Moeliono, a noted Indonesian language expert, who preferred using Bahasa Indonesia and its
indigenous languages rather than adopting or nativizing foreign terminologies.

Although under this policy local languages are used as a reference in case no Bahasa Indonesia equivalents are found in substituting foreign terminologies, the policy doesn’t sufficiently foreground the importance of using local languages in life domains. Filling in Bahasa Indonesia with equivalents from foreign languages apparently denigrates the contribution and values of the country’s indigenous language sources.

Furthermore, while admittedly words from local languages have been used as substitutes for foreign words, the policy is concerned only with a linguistic element (terminology or lexicon), and ignores other factors like the sociopolitical contexts in which local languages are spoken as well as the sociocultural values to which these languages are attached. Lastly, the policy assumes language use is an ideologically neutral activity.

Most troubling from such a policy is the desire for language unification or language homogeneity through the use of the national language. The obligatory use of Bahasa Indonesia as a unified language in the context of education, for example, provides irrefutable evidence of how language unification has become the goal.

Clearly, the excessive promotion of linguistic homogeneity can suppress linguistic diversity. In fact, there is a prevailing perception today that linguistic diversity can distort and pose a threat to national development, while linguistic homogeneity can arouse a feeling of nationalism necessary for successful nationhood.

What is often not realized in the promotion of the national language, especially through formal education, is that the social, economic and political interests of those speaking minority languages will eventually be sidelined.

Thus, the creation of an indigenous language policy is vital not only for the maintenance or preservation of language diversity and the protection of the rights of those speaking minority languages, but most importantly for national cultural strategies.

Recent awareness of supporting minority language speakers has engendered a new paradigm or framework for thinking upon which the creation of an indigenous language policy can be based. One such paradigm is called “the ecology of languages” paradigm. This paradigm has a radically different orientation from the linguistic homogeneity paradigm.

The former stresses the importance of the localization of local language ideology, respect for linguistic human rights, preservation and protection of minority languages and advocacy for multilingualism and multiculturalism.

As a final note, any language planning concerning local language policy and use needs to consider this conceptual framework so as to ensure the democratization of language use and equality in communication in the context of both national and global language hegemony.


The writer is an associate professor at Atma Jaya Catholic University, Jakarta. He is also chief editor of The Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching.

Let’s speak Bahasa Indonesia

Brea Salim, Jakarta | Opinion | Sun, October 27 2013, 11:12 AM

Opinion News

I have been speaking English since I was 4 years old. Today, many would say that I can write and speak as well as a native speaker. I find that English, however, sometimes only lets me express half of what I am trying to say.

Let me give an example: Just the other day I was stuck in one of the infamous Jakarta traffic jams. Unfortunately for me, I needed to go to the toilet really badly. If I were speaking to someone in English, I would say, “I can’t hold it anymore!” On the other hand, if I were speaking in Indonesian, I would say, “Kebelet!”

Being a bilingual Indonesian, I find the latter option to be the more effective in delivering the purpose of the sentence — the sense of urgency. In comparison to the long sentence spoken in English, kebelet quickly rolls off your tongue, displaying just how fast you need to get to the toilet. This example presents the problem I have with speaking English: its lack of soul.

The sad end to this story? I can barely communicate in Bahasa Indonesia. For a writer whose sole purpose in life is to better her ability in expressing herself, it is disheartening. Thankfully, although I could not write a decent Indonesian essay, I can still speak in informal Bahasa and read Indonesian literature pretty well. My little brother, I’m afraid, is much worse. He tries to not fall asleep in his fourth-grade Bahasa class, for he claims not to understand most of what the teacher is saying.

Am I trying to condemn this generation my brother and I are in as part of a string of Indonesian children who have had English-speaking parents, went to international schools and studied abroad for college? Not at all.

My parents could not be more proud with my little brother’s fluency in speaking English, as he happens to be a very articulate fourth-grader. I applaud the several private schools that have successfully taught their students to fluently speak English, for more and more Indonesian students are doing well in their studies abroad.

But it would also be ignorant of us to be completely unaware of the growing effects of globalization over the past few years.

My little brother and I have a 10-year age difference between us, thus we had very different childhoods as well. I was taught in Bahasa Indonesia for the first five years of my education, as the number of English language schools then were very limited. In the meantime, my brother has been taught in English his whole life, simply because there were more schools in Jakarta that had English as their primary language of instruction.

The increasing availability of English resources available in Jakarta is also another factor — my mother can buy my little brother good quality English books in Jakarta anytime she wants to, as opposed as to buying them in Singapore for me perhaps only once a year. And of course, who would hinder their son in bettering his English, especially if it will take him further in his career later in life?

That is why it is time to consider a tweak in the approach in teaching the two languages. As I said previously, while communicating in English allows me to express myself with candor and accuracy, it does not let me present the whole package.

For instance, I have always been dissatisfied with the fact that there is only one word for love in the English language. Love is many things and categorizing it in simply one word seems rather unfair. Like using the word kebelet, there is something different in saying, “Aku cinta kamu” to your first love instead of just a flimsy “I love you.” Cinta is reserved for a more passionate kind of love with its hard c and t sounds, showing one’s ardor and zeal upon confessing one’s feelings. English is a universal language that allows you to communicate with everybody, but Bahasa Indonesia lets an Indonesian express him/herself from the bottom of the heart.

Thus, one must place equal importance on both English and Indonesian languages, for they play different roles. The English language should be treated like one’s limbs and Bahasa Indonesia the driving force behind every action it takes. Do not let the invasion of the English language make you a child of globalization, a product of the overgeneralized “love”. We should aim to be Indonesian children of the world, whose roots are local yet have the ability to reach out to the global culture, who can express the deepest cinta out of their hearts in all they do.

The writer is studying at Barnard College, Columbia University, New York