Jakarta: Redefining language policy

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon Sep 11 14:38:48 UTC 2006

Redefining language policy

Setiono Sugiharto, Contributor, Jakarta

Who has the authority over language? Specifically, who has the power to
control language users to say "this", not "that", or to say "that", not
"this"? And who has the authority to determine language's do's and
don't's? These are classic questions that still remain germane up to now.
If a layman is to be challenged to provide the answer to these questions,
he would be apt to say that language experts or linguists possess the
authority to impose ways of using language. This answer, however, is no
longer valid, though questions on language authority still bear relevance
for discussion today.

Language users -- or as Elana Shohamy calls "mouth users" in her Language
Policy: Hidden Agendas and New Approaches -- have been indoctrinated into
perceiving language as a closed, fixed, rigid, standard, pure and stagnant
entity. This perception is simply contradictory to the basic nature of
language, which is essentially personal, free, open, creative and
constantly evolving over time. With this view in mind, Shohamy begs for an
expanded notion of language via various means of communication such as
gestures, numbers, food, fashion and images, calling this "languaging".
This term suggests that language is a tool used freely by "mouth users" in
natural interaction and communication. The implication is that no one has
the right to suppress, control or oppress a person's individual rights in
using language.

Explicitly, to impose specific linguistic behaviors, criteria and set
orders from outside bodies, Shohamy says, represent a type of
indoctrination of individual freedom by those who attempt to regulate
people and their behavior (pp. 1-2). Shohamy's attempt to expand the view
of language is motivated primarily by the fact that language is narrowly
conceived as a closed and finite organism, often used in a manipulative
and oppressive ways by policy-makers in the context of political entities
such as the nation-state.

It is through a mechanism called language policy that policy-makers can
perpetuate and impose language behaviors in accordance with the national,
political, social and economic agendas. Departing from the notion of
language as an open, dynamic, fluid, and evolving entity, Shohamy further
argues that the notion of language policy needs to be broadened in scope
to encompass not only official documents and statements -- which often pay
lip-service to inclusive ideology -- but also a variety of mechanisms,
i.e. language education, language tests, language in public places,
ideology, myths, propaganda and coercion.

It is via these mechanisms that de facto language policy is established.
These mechanisms, one should note, has power and manipulative capabilities
that are often unknown to the public because of their latent and covert
nature. Yet, they have the power to affect de facto language policy and
language behaviors, given their direct effect on language practices.
Though the use of these mechanisms (like the use of language in public
places) is a legitimate means of expression in democratic societies,
Shohamy cautiously warns us that they can be used as a potential means of
manipulation, oppression and coercion especially by those in authority
(notably government agencies) who can use the mechanisms more powerfully.
This is to say that these mechanisms are not immune to language abuse and
oppression, which in the end result in violation of personal rights.

The case of Israel's language policy is used to illustrate and support the
arguments put forward in this book. Yet, most of the arguments also bear
testimony to language policy in the Indonesian context, where language
manipulation, language oppression and language indoctrination continue to
prevail. In fact, if empirical research was to be conducted on Indonesian
language policy, the results would further strengthen many of the
arguments elucidated in Language Policy: Hidden Agendas and New

One important caveat in this book that merits our attention is that
declared language policy documents are not sacrosanct and are not the only
mechanism of language policy ever created. Thus, they are subject to
renegotiation, modification and even change. This certainly calls for
critical awareness of these mechanisms by constantly questioning and
challenging them. In so doing, the dynamism of language policy can be

The reviewer is a lecturer at Atma Jaya Catholic University.



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