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.

Language traps always trip me up

Nury Vittachi, Bangkok | Opinion | Sun, October 13 2013, 11:32 AM

This is an important warning. Never speak while traveling. You may die of a misunderstanding. I guarantee that if you say “Good morning” with the wrong tone, it will actually mean “Kill me now” in at least one Chinese dialect.

Consider this. I used to speak basic Cantonese but gave it up one night after I walked into a Hong Kong restaurant and announced that I was hungry: “Ngoh tou ngoh.” My friends fell about laughing because I’d used the wrong tones, changing the meaning to: “I have diarrhea.” Later, I called out: “Maai dan” (“Bring the bill”), but again used the wrong tones, turning it into: “I want to buy an egg.” My highly amused companions, who were at the cigar stage of the meal, sternly warned me not to call for a cigarette lighter (“da fo gei”) because that phrase with the wrong tones means “Let’s beat up the waiter.”

I’m quite sure people who create Asian languages insert these traps on purpose. If your foreign host mentions that he or she has a “baba”, DO NOT offer to babysit, however much you like cuddling babies. In Japan, a baba is an old lady. In Chinese, baba means “father”. In France, a baba is a round spongy object containing rum—a bit like my father. He spent a lot of time in France, so that may be the actual derivation.

My visits to Tokyo are always tricky, since my Japanese friends speak a sort of half-English, using just the first bits of English phrases. Sexual harassment is “seku hara”, and personal computer is “paso kon”. Knowing my luck, “Good morning” is short for “Good morning, kill me now.”

British people assume that their country’s nickname, “old Blighty”, comes from the word “blighted” (destroyed) and refers to the bad weather. Blighty is actually the Hindi “bilayati” which means “Foreigner Land”. Years ago, there must have been a conversation like this. Indian: “So, foreigner, you come from Foreigner Land [Biliyati]?” Brit: “Ah, so that’s how you say ‘Britain’ in your quaint Asian tongue; let me just write that down.”

A French reader told me about a Parisian chef who in 1765 started selling a tasty liquid he called a restorer, which is “restaurant” in French. The English thought “restaurant” meant “place to eat out”. Germans were dipping sops (Deutsch for “chunks of bread”) into the delicious warm bowls of restaurant. The confused English told the world that the new dish was called “soup”. So the English sentence: “Sitting in a restaurant, I drank some soup” actually means “Sitting in some soup, I drank some bread.” I was disinclined to accept this slur on English speakers but I checked Wikipedia and found the Frenchman was right in every detail.

But going back to meals in Hong Kong, one of my colleagues tried to tempt me to eat a popular local dish he translated as “Chicken With White Fungus”. I was tempted to reply that there was already chicken with white fungus in the shared fridge at my office, along with chicken with green fungus and pork fillets with mystery grey fur.

But I just kept my mouth shut. I’ll drop him an email from Foreigner Land.

The writer is a frequent traveler and columnist.

Will the real language policy stand up?

Fenty Lidya Siregar, Wellington | Opinion | Sat, November 03 2012, 7:42 AM

Paper Edition | Page: 6

The Education and Culture Ministry’s plan to scrap English from the elementary school curriculum has highlighted a number of pros and cons. Despite the controversy, I personally agree with the government’s policy.

However, will the real language policy stand up? Bernard Spolsky, a professor emeritus of linguistics in Bar-Ilan University’s department of English, employed the same question as one of the subheadings of his book Language Policy.

I think this is a question that our government and people have to answer, especially about the status of English in the overall language education policy of Indonesia.

According to Spolsky (2004), language policy consists of three elements, namely language practice, which focuses on how language practices are done; language management, which means any form of formulation or proclamation of an explicit plan or policy to modify or influence a language practice; and language beliefs, which are the beliefs about language and language use that lie behind each policy.

He adds that language policy is also about choice. Should this choice be formulated in the form of laws or explicit policies, it will remain a dream until there is an agreement of language beliefs among all stakeholders.

In the case of dropping English at the elementary school level in Indonesia, the success of the policy’s implementation will not depend solely on the government’s choice, but also the practices and language beliefs of the community.

What are our community’s language beliefs? Do we believe that learning English should start early since the earlier one starts to learn a language the better? Is it true? I think many people will say that is true. Well, I think it is not true in the context of Indonesia, especially for this moment.

First, in the Indonesian context, starting to learn English at the elementary level is not about a choice to learn early or not, but it is about preparing all the things needed prior to that start.

Andy Kirkpatrick, a professor of English as an international language at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, states that it is not necessary to start teaching English early in order to gain a high proficiency. He also argues that it is actually harmful to start teaching English too early in the great majority of ASEAN contexts as there are inadequate resources, a chronic and severe lack of suitably qualified and linguistically proficient teachers and the learning environment is anything but supportive. I think Indonesia also fits within these contexts.

Second, most of the time teaching of English comes at the expense of something else, particularly local languages and cultures. Many parents send their children to an international school that uses English as its medium of instruction or bilingual schools so that their children can speak English with American or British accents. Thus, these children are prepared to sacrifice fluency and literacy in their first or national language for English proficiency.

I used to teach in a private kindergarten and all the pupils in that school learned English from kindergarten level A, or the lowest level at that school, but they never learned any local languages.

Their parents were so happy when their children spoke English all the time. I often questioned why these parents were so proud when they themselves could not communicate with their children in English due to their own low English proficiency. I do not blame these parents because family language policy is also about one’s choice. They can also afford the international school fees for their children’s education.

Nevertheless, do these parents realize that learning a language is not about learning a language but it is purposely to be able to communicate with other people?

Most Indonesians do not use English daily. We communicate in Indonesian or another mother tongue. For most Indonesians, the Indonesian language is not their first language due to the widespread use of other local languages.

I agree with Kirkpatrick’s argument that the first language serves as a bridge to literacy and fluency in the second and third language. It will not get in the way of learning a second language or a foreign language. He adds that ensuring children to gain both literacy and fluency in their first language is an excellent investment in their linguistic future.

Thus, omitting English from elementary school curriculum in Indonesia does not mean ending the children’s future. Should the time spent for teaching of English be used to enhance the children’s proficiency in their mother tongue and grow their love of their culture, it will not be in vain.

The writer is a doctoral candidate at the school of linguistics and applied language studies at Victoria University, Wellington