Indonesia: setback for Bahasa Indonesia?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Oct 29 13:39:39 UTC 2006

Setback for Bahasa Indonesia?

Saturday, October 28, 2006
Setiono Sugiharto, Jakarta

On Oct. 28, 1928, Indonesian youth organizations from across the country
created the Youth Pledge: One nation, one people, one language. Since
then, Bahasa Indonesia, the Indonesian language, has been significantly
enriched by the unstoppable influx of foreign words. Foreign terminology
is ubiquitous in advertising, industry, government, the media, politics,
and education. This is evidence of language permeation, the process of
lexical modernization of Bahasa Indonesia. As language by its nature is
dynamic, constantly evolving over time, this process is absolutely

Many people, however, especially purists and bureaucrats, perceive
language penetration as a threat. Fearing that local languages could
become extinct, they have tried to protect them from infiltration by
foreign terms. The government's Language Center has prepared a draft bill
banning the use of foreign terminology in many areas and urging the
substitution of local words. Legal sanctions could be imposed on those who
insist on using foreign terms. Banning the public use of foreign words on
the grounds of preserving local languages is fatuous. It is difficult to
see any scientific basis for this argument.

For one thing, the policy itself allows the use of foreign terms under
certain conditions. It stipulates that if there are no appropriate
substitutes for the borrowed word in Bahasa Indonesia or its language
family, the foreign word can be used. This clearly demonstrates that the
arrival of foreign terms can enrich a language's vocabulary. Indonesian,
which is derived from Malay, is actually not a pure language.
Historically, its development owes much to other foreign languages ,such
as Sanskrit, Arabic, Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese and English. Many terms
from these languages have been accepted and absorbed into Bahasa Indonesia
and are used in daily communication.

With the influence of these languages, it is clear that Bahasa Indonesia
has been developing rapidly and continues to develop, especially in its
lexicon. This is progress. We must question, however, the role the
Language Center has played in the development of our national language. In
the past the Language Center, as a government agency, was responsible for
carrying out language planning and guiding language development among its
constituents, mainly via electronic media and manuals known as Lembar
Komunikasi. These activities were also known as language cultivation.

In recent years, however, the role of the Language Center seems to be
diminishing. As the government agency in charge of language planning and
development, the Center seems to have lost its credibility and legitimacy
in the eyes of the public. It has failed to convince language users to
adopt the policies it has created. It is evident that the public still
persistently uses foreign terms despite being discouraged from doing so.
In fact, the use of foreign words is widespread and uncontrollable, and
language cultivation programs are no longer being promoted. Our language
planning has experienced a serious setback. To regain public credibility
and to restore legitimacy to the Language Center, some suggestions follow.

First, language planning should no longer be determined through a
"top-down" approach. It should instead embrace wider constituents from
various related disciplines such as sociology, history, applied
linguistics, philosophy, politics, ideology, gender studies and indeed,
any domain in which language is used.

Second, the government cannot control the public's language choices. To
dictate language use, especially via the law-making body, is tantamount to
treating language as a means of indoctrination, repression, and
monopolization. That contradicts the very nature of language, which is
personal, dynamic, creative, and constantly evolving.

Third, the Language Center should distance itself from government
intervention. Rather than being a government agency, it should become an
independent institution. Language planning should eschew politics and
become purely academic.

Also, it is important to investigate the failures and successes of
language planning and involve constituents in the process, in order to
ensure that the Indonesian language represents and unites all Indonesians.

The writer is a lecturer and researcher at Atma Jaya Catholic University,
Jakarta. He can be reached at setiono.sugiharto at

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