Indonesia: Indigenous languages in danger of disappearing

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Oct 28 15:11:14 UTC 2007

Indigenous languages in danger of disappearing

Setiono Sugiharto, Jakarta

Indonesia is known not only for its multiethnic richness, but also for
its linguistically diversified provinces and regions. Recent
documented records by the National Education Ministry indicate there
are 746 indigenous languages in the country, 10 of which have died
out. Worse, according to noted linguists Stephen A. Wurm in his Atlas
of the World's Languages in Danger of Disappearing (published by
UNESCO 2001), the number of vanishing languages is likely to rise

Among the regions in Indonesia, the province of Maluku, according to
research findings by J. Margaret Florey and Aone van Engelenhoven in
2001, forms one of the most severely endangered linguistic regions. It
was found that the languages of Teun, Nila and Serua spoken in
Southwest Maluku are in danger of disappearing. Previously reliable
data found in Ethnologue: Languages of the World edited by Barbara F.
Grimes found there are 30 languages (classified as of non-Austronesia
and Austronesia origin) in North Maluku which have the potential of
disappearing, with the number of speakers ranging from 1,00 to 40,000.
These languages (from the least to the most numbers of speakers)
include Kadai, Mangole, Maba, Loloda and Tobelo.

An updated record in Atlas Bahasa Tanah Maluku (Maluku Languages
Atlas) by Mark Taber et al. (reported by Osamu Sakiyama) lists 15
languages having fewer than 1,000 speakers. They include the Nakaela
language of Seram (five speakers), the Amahi and Paulohi languages
(spoken by 50 people each) and the South Nuaulu and Yalahatan
languages (having 1,000 speakers each). From these figures, one can
reasonably assume that gradually but definitely these languages will
become extinct. The threshold level commonly used to ensure the
survival of a language is that the number of speakers speaking the
language must reach 100,000.

Another region in Indonesia noted for having many endangered
indigenous languages is Papua. Based on a wide array of sources such
as key informants, people living in the region and documents by
linguists from the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), there are
111 endangered languages, well documented in Index of Irian Jaya
Languages: A Special Publication of Irian Bulletin of Irian Jaya by
Peter J. Silzer and Helja Heikkinen Clouse. Out of this figure, nine
languages have become extinct (e.g. Bapu, Dabe, Wares, Taworta,
Waritai, Murkim, Walak, Meoswar and Lagenyem), 32 languages are
terminally endangered or moribund (among others, Yoki, Liki, Mander,
Pawi, Yoki and Kapori) and 70 languages are seriously endangered
(among others, Biak, Yali, Sentani, Maibrat, Moni, Awyu and Ngalum).

The Alor and Pantar Project (from 2003-2007), funded by the
Netherlands Organization of Scientific Research, Leiden University and
Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Documentation Program, has
documented endangered languages spoken in eastern Indonesia, in Alor
and Pantar, such as Klon, Kafoa (West Alor), Abui (Central Alor) and
Teiwa (West Pantar). Dayak languages found in West Kalimantan are also
believed to be threatened. There are 26 languages, it is reported,
having 500 or so speakers. They include such languages as Bukat,
Punan, Kayaan, Sungkung and Konyeh.

There are still other endangered local languages in other provinces
and regions, documented in Bahasa Daerah di Indonesia (Indigenous
Languages in Indonesia) published by the Language Center in 1985,
which have fewer than 100,000 speakers.
These include Tondano (Sulawesi), Tanimbar (Southwest Nusa), Alas
(Sumatra), Mamuju (Sulawesi) and Ogan (Sumatra). Language endangerment
is a sign of language extinction, which eventually leads to language
death. Some possible reasons have been proposed to account for why
languages become endangered.

Some of the extreme reasons are linguicide (linguistic suicide) -- a
term often associated with genocide, epidemics and natural
catastrophe. Another reason is speakers gradually shifting to the
dominant language in a language contact situation. Still, another
reason is speakers' own preference of shifting to other languages they
think are more prestigious and modern than their own native languages.

Yet, the most powerful force behind language disappearance is
socio-political, manifested primarily via language policy, language
indoctrination through education, repression and pressure to use the
official and national language over local languages, which has been
and continues to be the case in the Indonesian context.

Given the relatively small number of speakers, it is difficult to
guarantee the continued existence of endangered indigenous languages
in modern Indonesian society. To save them from extinction, some
concrete steps need to be taken. The state's budget needs to be
allocated to stimulate research in endangered language documentation.
The compilation of documents containing data on endangered languages
can help maintain save from extinction.

Indigenous language revitalization is a must. Thanks to the regional
autonomy granted by the central government, local language revival can
now be feasibly realized through regional language policies that make
indigenous languages a compulsory subject in school. Education then
has the responsibility for improving students' ethnic identity
awareness. This can encourage learners to use their local language not
only at school, but also at home. Backed up with ethnic identity
awareness, literacy programs need to be promoted among youngsters to
teach them to respect and appreciate their native languages.

Only in this way can endangered indigenous languages -- a nation's
precious cultural heritage -- be maintained and conserved in this
globalized world.

The writer is editor-in-chief of the Indonesian Journal of English
Language Teaching. He can be reached at
setiono.sugiharto at

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