[lg policy] Plan to preserve Balinese

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Wed May 15 14:33:20 UTC 2013

Laetitia Chanèac-Knight and Alissa Stern outline their plan to preserve
Balinese with the help of modern technology

Scientists agree that it is vital to preserve species to keep our
ecosystems intact, to provide answers to human health and other questions
and to sustain the life of our planet. But what about languages? A language
represents a particular view of the world, centuries of unique traditions,
and a particular understanding of the environment and how to live with it
in harmony. Yet languages, like species, evolve in response to a set of
internal and external factors.

BASAbali.org, a U.S. based nonprofit organization, is bringing together
Balinese linguists, anthropologists, and language software specialists to
develop the first interactive materials for spoken Balinese, a language
with only a million speakers left, and Balinese script, which is already

Many factors contribute to the decline of Balinese. Since independence, the
national government, like those of many multilingual countries, has pushed
for a unifying, national language — in this case Indonesian — to be spoken
in schools, government meetings, and official public settings. The media,
which until recently was required to be in Indonesian, encourages children
to speak Indonesian. Social networks like Facebook, which are a more
popular mechanism for messaging in Indonesia than email, compound the
problem since there is a reluctance to use Balinese when it’s not clear
that everyone in the “group” can understand. So, Indonesian Bahasa became
the default language (until very recently, when the first three
Balinese-only language groups were formed).

Globalization has also contributed to the exclusion of Balinese. In
situations where Balinese interact with Indonesians from other islands,
Indonesian is the local lingua franca, and in interactions with people from
further afield, English is spoken. Since tourism is a driving force in
Bali’s economy, and growth occurring in the transportation, communication,
trade, and hotel sectors contrasted with a drop in agriculture, global
economic pressures will undoubtedly exclude the Balinese language further.

Because of a highly complex register system — the nuance of which is lost
on most non-native speakers — it is sometimes awkward to speak Balinese.
These registers are keyed to the status and age of the speaker relative to
the listener, the degree of formality and the subject matter of the
conversation. Individual words can be said in different registers, subtly
elevating or downgrading the person being spoken to or about. The grammar
is fairly fluid and relatively easy to learn, yet substantial contextual
knowledge is required to understand the context of a conversation.

By trying to capture some of these intricacies of Balinese in new
interactive materials, Transparent Language, is becoming known for its
innovative approach to languages. Using dialogues as the basis of learning,
it is generously donating the software as part of its program to offer
material for all of the world’s languages.

The material will be based on a series of dialogues that will teach
increasingly complex conversations. The dialogues will be shot on location
in the country, featuring typical Balinese situations, such as buying fruit
at a market, planting rice, creating an offering, learning how to play
gamelan, or attending a family gathering with native speakers talking as
they normally would — including use of appropriate registers — so that
learners can mirror and acquire knowledge about how the register system
functions. A variety of engaging, interactive exercises will help learners
master the phrases in the dialogues and the vocabulary that comprises them.
Users will be able to manipulate flashcards, change the voice speed and
respond to questions with progressively fewer hints. Grammatical notes will
cue learners of the intricacies of the language and cultural notes will
help ensure that learners not only learn Balinese, but learn how to speak
it appropriately.

The software will include materials on Balinese script for historical and
cultural knowledge. Balinese script presents challenges to users beyond
interpreting the curls and swirls. Because palm leaves, which were used
like paper, were expensive, words were written one after another without
spaces. The practice has continued. Most of the characters are actually
syllables with vowels put above, below and alongside them. Sacred
characters are placed before or after sacred words. Unlike other languages
where a character chart allows the speaker to write the words even if they
are not understood, with Balinese script, it is critical to understand how
the words are constructed in order to properly write them. Balinese script
for Microsoft Word is easily available and distributed to Balinese school
children to assist them in learning the writing system. BASAbali hopes to
supplement with skill-based learning to ensure that they have a solid
understanding of written Balinese, and to attain it in a fun, interactive
way. The Balinese script material will be animated but appropriate for
children and adults.

BASAbali will donate the software free of charge to nonprofits in and
outside of Bali and to others at a modest fee to support updates,
distribution and tech support. BASAbali foresees that their language
materials will be of interest to a wide range of people: local cultural
organizations, schools, language centers, heritage learners, expats living
in Bali and tourists passing through who might just want to access the
cultural notes to get a general feel for Balinese.

Laetitia Chanèac-Knight is a former language teacher and currently the
editor of the guidebook Bali with Kids (www.baliwithkids.com). With her
background in Applied Linguistics, she has a special interest in
multilingual issues. She brings up her two children trilingually in
English, French and Bahasa Indonesia.

Alissa Stern is the Executive Director of BasaBali.org. She received a JD
from Harvard Law School (1991), a BA in Anthropology and Southeast Asian
Studies from Cornell University (1986), and an advanced certificate in
Indonesian from IKIP Malang (in Jakarta). She was a student of linguist
Professor John Wolff and assisted him in revising the Echols/Shadily/Wolff
Indonesian-English Dictionary.


 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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