[lg policy] As English Spreads, Indonesians Fear for Their Language
haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jul 26 14:13:37 UTC 2010
July 25, 2010
As English Spreads, Indonesians Fear for Their Language
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Paulina Sugiarto’s three children played together
at a mall here the other day, chattering not in Indonesia’s national
language, but English. Their fluency often draws admiring questions
from other Indonesian parents Ms. Sugiarto encounters in this city’s
upscale malls. But the children’s ability in English obscured the fact
that, though born and raised in Indonesia, they were struggling with
the Indonesian language, known as Bahasa Indonesia. Their parents, who
grew up speaking the Indonesian language but went to college in the
United States and Australia, talk to their children in English. And
the children attend a private school where English is the main
language of instruction.
“They know they’re Indonesian,” Ms. Sugiarto, 34, said. “They love
Indonesia. They just can’t speak Bahasa Indonesia. It’s tragic.”
Indonesia’s linguistic legacy is increasingly under threat as growing
numbers of wealthy and upper-middle-class families shun public schools
where Indonesian remains the main language but English is often taught
poorly. They are turning, instead, to private schools that focus on
English and devote little time, if any, to Indonesian. For some
Indonesians, as mastery of English has become increasingly tied to
social standing, Indonesian has been relegated to second-class status.
In extreme cases, people take pride in speaking Indonesian poorly.
The global spread of English, with its sometimes corrosive effects on
local languages, has caused much hand-wringing in many
non-English-speaking corners of the world. But the implications may be
more far-reaching in Indonesia, where generations of political leaders
promoted Indonesian to unite the nation and forge a national identity
out of countless ethnic groups, ancient cultures and disparate
The government recently announced that it would require all private
schools to teach the nation’s official language to its Indonesian
students by 2013. Details remain sketchy, though.
“These schools operate here, but don’t offer Bahasa to our citizens,”
said Suyanto, who oversees primary and secondary education at the
“If we don’t regulate them, in the long run this could be dangerous
for the continuity of our language,” said Mr. Suyanto, who like many
Indonesians uses one name. “If this big country doesn’t have a strong
language to unite it, it could be dangerous.”
The seemingly reflexive preference for English has begun to attract
criticism in the popular culture. Last year, a woman, whose father is
Indonesian and her mother American, was crowned Miss Indonesia despite
her poor command of Indonesian. The judges were later denounced in the
news media and in the blogosphere for being impressed by her English
fluency and for disregarding the fact that, despite growing up here,
she needed interpreters to translate the judges’ questions.
In 1928, nationalists seeking independence from Dutch rule chose
Indonesian, a form of Malay, as the language of civic unity. While a
small percentage of educated Indonesians spoke Dutch, Indonesian
became the preferred language of intellectuals.
Each language had a social rank, said Arief Rachman, an education
expert. “If you spoke Javanese, you were below,” he said, referring to
the main language on the island of Java. “If you spoke Indonesian, you
were a bit above. If you spoke Dutch, you were at the top.”
Leaders, especially Suharto, the general who ruled Indonesia until
1998, enforced teaching of Indonesian and curbed use of English.
“During the Suharto era, Bahasa Indonesia was the only language that
we could see or read. English was at the bottom of the rung,” said
Aimee Dawis, who teaches communications at Universitas Indonesia. “It
was used to create a national identity, and it worked, because all of
us spoke Bahasa Indonesia. Now the dilution of Bahasa Indonesia is not
the result of a deliberate government policy. It’s just occurring
With Indonesia’s democratization in the past decade, experts say,
English became the new Dutch. Regulations were loosened, allowing
Indonesian children to attend private schools that did not follow the
national curriculum, but offered English. The more expensive ones,
with tuition costing several thousand dollars a year, usually employ
native speakers of English, said Elena Racho, vice chairwoman of the
Association of National Plus Schools, an umbrella organization for
But with the popularity of private schools booming, hundreds have
opened in recent years, Ms. Racho said. The less expensive ones,
unable to hire foreigners, are often staffed with Indonesians teaching
all subjects in English, if often imperfect English, she added.
Many children attending those schools end up speaking Indonesian
poorly, experts said. Uchu Riza — who owns a private school that
teaches both languages and also owns the local franchise of Kidzania,
an amusement park where children can try out different professions —
said some Indonesians were willing to sacrifice Indonesian for a
language with perceived higher status.
“Sometimes they look down on people who don’t speak English,” she said.
She added: “In some families, the grandchildren cannot speak with the
grandmother because they don’t speak Bahasa Indonesia. That’s sad.”
Anna Surti Ariani, a psychologist who provides counseling at private
schools and in her own practice, said some parents even displayed “a
negative pride” that their children spoke poor Indonesian. Schools
typically advise the parents to speak to their children in English at
home even though the parents may be far from fluent in the language.
“Sometimes the parents even ask the baby sitters not to speak in
Indonesian but in English,” Ms. Ariani said.
It is a sight often seen in this city’s malls on weekends: Indonesian
parents addressing their children in sometimes halting English,
followed by nannies using what English words they know.
But Della Raymena Jovanka, 30, a mother of two preschoolers, has
developed misgivings. Her son Fathiy, 4, attended an English play
group and was enrolled in a kindergarten focusing on English; Ms.
Jovanka allowed him to watch only English TV programs.
The result was that her son responded to his parents only in English
and had difficulties with Indonesian. Ms. Jovanka was considering
sending her son to a regular public school next year. But friends and
relatives were pressing her to choose a private school so that her son
could become fluent in English.
Asked whether she would rather have her son become fluent in English
or Indonesian, Ms. Jovanka said, “To be honest, English. But this can
become a big problem in his socialization. He’s Indonesian. He lives
in Indonesia. If he can’t communicate with people, it’ll be a big
Harold F. Schiffman
Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305
Phone: (215) 898-7475
Fax: (215) 573-2138
Email: haroldfs at gmail.com
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