[lg policy] Indonesia: Indigenous language policy as a national cultural strategy
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Mon Oct 28 14:49:03 UTC 2013
Indigenous language policy
as a national cultural
Setiono Sugiharto, Jakarta | Opinion | Mon, October 28 2013, 11:00 AM
The Congress on Indonesian Cultural Strategy, held recently from Oct. 8 to
11 in Yogyakarta, though laudable in its effort to seek appropriate
cultural strategies to counter a globalist discourse, missed a fundamental
issue: the looming threat of Indonesia’s disappearing local languages.
It has been estimated that some 700 local languages are in a moribund
state, and that some 169 languages have less than 500 native speakers. This
issue should have become a serious agenda item at the congress, given that
local languages are part of cultural heritages that need to be preserved.
Various reasons have been proposed to account for the near-extinction of
local languages spoken in various regions in the country. These causes are,
among other things, inter-ethnic marriage, natural disasters and the
speakers’ attitudes toward other dominant languages that trigger a language
shift. These are all plausible reasons, and some people consider them as
Yet, it is more plausible to argue that the threat of local language
extinction is due to the sheer absence of minority language policy. With
the absence of this policy, the protection of minority languages amid
competition from other languages cannot be assured.
We certainly do have a national language policy, which was created by the
then National Center for Language Development (Pusat Pembinaan dan
Pengembangan Bahasa) in 1986. However, this policy was and is still being
used only as a filter to find Bahasa Indonesia equivalents of foreign
language terminologies, which at that time were deemed too excessive and
threatening to the survival of the national language, i.e. Bahasa
It needs to be highlighted that this policy was created during the
chairmanship of the late arch-demon Anton Moeliono, a noted Indonesian
language expert, who preferred using Bahasa Indonesia and its
indigenous languages rather than adopting or nativizing foreign
Although under this policy local languages are used as a reference in case
no Bahasa Indonesia equivalents are found in substituting foreign
terminologies, the policy doesn’t sufficiently foreground the importance of
using local languages in life domains. Filling in Bahasa Indonesia with
equivalents from foreign languages apparently denigrates the contribution
and values of the country’s indigenous language sources.
Furthermore, while admittedly words from local languages have been used as
substitutes for foreign words, the policy is concerned only with a
linguistic element (terminology or lexicon), and ignores other factors like
the sociopolitical contexts in which local languages are spoken as well as
the sociocultural values to which these languages are attached. Lastly, the
policy assumes language use is an ideologically neutral activity.
Most troubling from such a policy is the desire for language unification or
language homogeneity through the use of the national language. The
obligatory use of Bahasa Indonesia as a unified language in the context of
education, for example, provides irrefutable evidence of how language
unification has become the goal.
Clearly, the excessive promotion of linguistic homogeneity can suppress
linguistic diversity. In fact, there is a prevailing perception today that
linguistic diversity can distort and pose a threat to national development,
while linguistic homogeneity can arouse a feeling of nationalism necessary
for successful nationhood.
What is often not realized in the promotion of the national language,
especially through formal education, is that the social, economic and
political interests of those speaking minority languages will eventually be
Thus, the creation of an indigenous language policy is vital not only for
the maintenance or preservation of language diversity and the protection of
the rights of those speaking minority languages, but most importantly for
national cultural strategies.
Recent awareness of supporting minority language speakers has engendered a
new paradigm or framework for thinking upon which the creation of an
indigenous language policy can be based. One such paradigm is called “the
ecology of languages” paradigm. This paradigm has a radically different
orientation from the linguistic homogeneity paradigm.
The former stresses the importance of the localization of local language
ideology, respect for linguistic human rights, preservation and protection
of minority languages and advocacy for multilingualism and multiculturalism.
As a final note, any language planning concerning local language policy and
use needs to consider this conceptual framework so as to ensure the
democratization of language use and equality in communication in the
context of both national and global language hegemony.
The writer is an associate professor at Atma Jaya Catholic University,
Jakarta. He is also chief editor of The Indonesian Journal of English
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