[lg policy] Maintaining =?windows-1252?Q?=91partly_alive=92_?=languages in Indonesia

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sun Apr 3 15:19:14 UTC 2011

Maintaining ‘partly alive’ languages in Indonesia
Mochamad Subhan Zein, Jakarta | Sat, 04/02/2011 8:00 AM

In my article published by The Jakarta Post, “Indonesia: A Battlefield
of Linguistic Survival” published on Jan. 29, I pointed out that
“multilingualism in Indonesia is in a real state of catastrophe”.

My statement is not an exaggeration, since research conducted by a
prominent research institution, the Summer Institute of Linguistics
(SIL), stated that no less than 86.7 percent of the 735 languages in
Indonesia are at risk of extinction. These languages are spoken by
fewer than 100,000 native speakers and are only partly alive.

In Indonesia’s contemporary world where political hypocrisies, weak
law enforcement, and religious intolerances form an endless thread of
news consumed by the people, the skeptical may ask, “Can concerns
about language maintenance enter the realm of people’s daily lives?”

Well, I am an optimist, so I would answer “yes” to that question.
Re-cently, the Post showed some posters in Javanese characters carried
by several students of SD Bright Kiddie 3 on their visit to Panjebar
Semangat magazine in Surabaya, East Java.

These children might not be aware of the nature of their visit, but
what they did was a simple example of language policy, a good sample
of language conservation.

With the intention to support the campaign to use Javanese as a native
language in Indonesia, the children demonstrated what schools could do
to prevent local languages from disappearing. I would like to argue
that two elements that need to be fully considered when maintaining
languages include the societal aspects of the language and the
presence of competitor language(s).

First of all, improving the functional values of an endangered
language needs to be a priority. In order for a language to survive,
it should have a social function. Put simply, a language needs to be
spoken for it to be well-preserved. Thus, a language that is not
spoken in society needs to at least be spoken at home. Parents, in
this regard, need to speak in their local languages with their

Children who live in urban areas are usually victims of modernity.
Many of these children are the offspring of inter-ethnical marriages.
Their parents could be Javanese and Sundanese, or Betawi and
Sundanese, or Bimanese and Malay, so they are often native speakers of
two different languages.

Children may be exposed to Indonesian both at home and at school, and
learn English at school or in private courses, but they sometimes do
not have chances to speak with their parents in their local languages.
As a consequence, most of these children don’t have the slightest idea
of simple terms in their parents’ local languages, not to mention
conversing in them.

What parents can do is to promote a family language policy. Let say a
family consists of a Javanese husband, his Sundanese wife and their
two children.

In private conversations, the father needs to speak Javanese with the
children, whereas the wife would speak Sundanese. When they hold
family gatherings, however, all family members switch to use
Indonesian. Both Javanese and Sundanese are well-preserved within the
family and the use of Indonesian is promoted.

The family strategy is proved viable as in the case of a friend of my
colleague who has mastered both English and Gujarati. His success
story adds to countless cases of children who speak both Spanish and
Portuguese or English and German.

The next step to empowering a language is through social institutions.
In fact, language policy efforts at a local level are manifold and can
be achieved through various social domains. Schooling is a domain in
which language policy can take place, as the students of SD Bright
Kiddie 3 have demonstrated.

Children can learn Javanese at school and learn how alphabets are
formed in these languages. They can also attend extra-curricular
activities in Javanese or even read comics in Javanese and do some
sort of Javanese traditional performances, like Ludruk and others.

The religious domain is another viable means for language
conservation. Children who speak local languages in Mahakam,
Kalimantan, can maintain their language through chanting religious
spells in their local religion.

The presence of a competitor language also needs to be fully
considered. In this sense, Indonesian has become a rival to local
languages, according to scholars such as Ajip Rosidi. In many cases,
during the New Order regime, efforts to use local languages were
deemed unsupportive to national development.

Although the spirit to promote the status of Indonesian as the
national language was meritorious, there were misconceptions in the
early years of Indonesian independence, which then built strong
prejudices against vernaculars or local languages in Indonesia.

A common misconception about the 1928 Youth Pledge is that instead of
declaring “We, Indonesian youths, highly respect the use of a united
language, the Indonesian language,” people say “We, Indonesian youths,
speak one language, the Indonesian language”.

As a result, the motivation to secure vernaculars against extinction
was seen as a separatist movement that deviates from a national vision
of having one nation with one national language. No wonder local
languages are seen as ancient and against modernity.

English could also be a rival to local languages. The fact now more
and more primary schools offer English to students in various places
in Indonesia and the fact that lots of children learn it at private
courses is undeniable.

It is true that children need to learn English for their future, but
they also need to learn their local languages. Acquiring English at
the expense of their local languages is ill-advised. Thus, some sort
of language policy should be created to support preservation of local
languages and on the other hand promote Indonesian and English.

The author, a PhD candidate at the Australian National University
(ANU), is an English instructor at the University of Canberra’s
English Language Institute.


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