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.

Deconstructing the national exam

Setiono Sugiharto, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, October 05 2013, 9:08 AM

As many had predicted, the two-day national exam convention ended with what the public saw as a rather disappointing consensus: the national exam is still needed as an instrument for measuring the final learning achievements of students.

Despite facing harsh criticism from education experts and teachers represented mainly by the Indonesian Teachers Union (PGRI), the Education and Culture Ministry is adamant that the implementation of the national exam ought to be retained.

That opinions from teachers and education experts went unheard or ignored should come as no surprise. It is not the first time critical voices have been suppressed in the policymaking process of national exam implementation.

In its last decade of implementation, the national exam has always been replete with brouhaha, with public criticism falling on deaf ears.

The ministry’s insistence on maintaining the national exam as the sole testing tool nationwide and its defiance of critical insights from convention participants serve to indicate several important things.

First, the national exam has been used clandestinely as a bureaucratic mechanism to monopolize and homogenize utilitarian knowledge-making practices.

Elana Shohamy (2006) views such a mechanism as an ulterior endeavor to create a “de facto” educational policy and to elide knowledge in multicultural societies.

As the UN is imposed on all schools nationwide without exception, diverse knowledge developed from the grassroots is severely restricted and demoted. In such multicultural societies, Shomamy envisions a democratic principle of having testing of the people, for the people and by the people.

Furthermore, the ministry’s dominant role in the national exam suggests the dissemination and imposition of a bureaucratic ideology on the public — a suppressing ideology that cajoles them into believing that standardized state-mandated exams are trustworthy, valid, dependable, fair and infallible.

Here the intention is that both teachers and students are treated as what Shohamy calls “bureaucrats”, not “professionals”.

Through the maintenance of the national exam, the ministry exercises and perpetuates its power (and hence the power of the national exam) to hegemonize and legitimize the educational policy it has made, proscribing any resistance from those having no power. In a more extreme analogy, teachers are deliberately made powerless “servants” whose function is simply to implement the agenda of the powerful.

Finally, the sustainability of the national exam is maintained due to its power as a gate-keeper to sort out those who are considered academically competent and incompetent, and then to exclude the incompetent ones.

While it is true that the discrimination index has commonly been employed as the criteria of a good test, in the context of a highly centralized national exam, with participants hailing from diversified knowledge traditions, the yawning gaps created by the exam serve to mirror unfairness and unethical conduct.

If the national exam has been used as a political mechanism to help sustain the legitimacy of the authority, then debates over whether or not it should be scrapped from the national education system from a sole pedagogical perspective need to be reconsidered.

A radical perspective from which to interrogate the usefulness of the national exam is now badly needed. This perspective can draw insights from the philosophy of liberal knowledge-making, which can not only challenge the existence of the national exam and question its value, but also politicize it.

This perspective can therefore complicate the implementation of the national exam. It goes beyond queries related to the technicalities of the exam, such as the real value of the exam, its validity and reliability, its efficiency in the printing and distribution process, and the possibility of cheating.

What the above perspective encourages is issues related to the interrogation of power relations and ideological bases underlying the construction of the national exam, the interests served by its implementation, the democratic processes included in its construction (the involvement and collaboration of stakeholders with shared authority), and the transparency in and public accountability of its program evaluation.

This reorientation is vital and must be made explicit at the outset, given that the national exam is a high-stakes test, and more importantly, that it is always used as a covert mechanism to hegemonize power and control and to spread bureaucratic ideology uncongenial to the democratization of knowledge-making processes among teachers and students in multicultural societies.

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.

Renewing the national curriculum

Paul Suparno, Yogyakarta | Opinion | Sat, October 13 2012, 10:15 AM

Paper Edition | Page: 6

Education and Culture Minister Mohammad Nuh has recently announced plans to revise the curriculum. The existing curriculum, despite its strengths, is considered out of date and unable to deal with the changing environment (Kompas, Sept. 5).

A high-quality curriculum should, at least, consist of context, goal and content. Its viability, however, is determined by how the content is arranged and how evaluation of the curriculum is prepared.

The curriculum should suit the characteristics of our students, who are considered part of the “Z generation”. They communicate through the Internet, using social networking websites. They are exposed to so much information both good and bad, appropriate with our culture and not. They live in an instant culture that prompts them to do and act fast. They are also influenced by a consumptive culture.

In a nutshell, they need a different approach and method of learning.

Students are used to tackling several problems at once. They are able to multitask with ease, talk with friends, search for information on the Internet and communicate by mobile phone. Their learning should not just be given in a linear approach, which sees subjects studied back and forth; rather they need a non-linear learning method too.

Today’s students live in a globalized world where information, whether it is good or bad, is readily available. So they still need to think critically, to enable them to choose what information is beneficial and make decisions for themselves that affect their life. The new curriculum should help students develop critical thinking and make decisions.

Since they learn from outside influences, not only from their teachers, the dynamic of the respect they give to teachers is different from that of students in the past. Today’s students are more independent than those from past generations; sometimes they don’t care about their teachers.

The new curriculum should set clear goals, so we’ll be sure what to do. It has to identify competence goals that students need to master when they finish elementary or secondary school. The goals set should be short, realistic and achievable.

According to the existing curriculum, students have to learn about 14-16 subject matters in each semester, which are too much. Due to the curriculum burden while the time is limited, students can only grasp the surface and miss the depth, preventing them from thinking critically. It is high time for the government to drop some subject matters and extend learning hours. The expected result is students will study with enthusiasm and develop their critical thinking.

Some critics say that current curriculum stresses cognitive aspects but pays less attention to character building and transfer of values. Some indicators are the rampant student clashes, cheating and juvenile delinquency. Hopefully the new curriculum will emphasize character development to balance the cognitive aspect.

There are several important questions related to the government’s plan to renew the curriculum. How will the content of the curriculum be managed? Will it be arranged systematically and in accordance with the students’ thought level and environment? How will the learning methodology be chosen to ensure that our goal will be fully accomplished? Should the learning method and strategy match the students’ culture and context?

Our nation needs young people who can live together in peace and work together with others without any discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, religion and so on.

Therefore, the curriculum should encourage pluralism and emphasize the spirit of our national and its motto Bhinneka Tunggal Eka (unity in diversity).

When it comes to the evaluation of students’ performance, examinations (including the national exam) are administered to accomplish the goals of the curriculum. For example, if we want the students to develop critical thinking, the national exam should measure how reasonable and reflective students are. This means the examination should challenge students to think not just memorize.

Based on the aforementioned reasons, the new curriculum should meet several criteria such as: (1) help students develop critical thinking and decision making, (2) allow students the freedom to think, (3) reduce the number of subjects, (4) allow for a pleasant learning process, (5) emphasize character education, (6) aim for clear and simple goals and (7) promote examinations that are prepared according to students’ ability and educational goals.

Last but not least, the next curriculum should encourage students to work together and live as one family — called Indonesia.

Anyway, a curriculum is just a plan. There must also be the freedom to implement and improve it.

The writer is a lecturer at Sanata Dharma University, Yogyakarta.