Audrey Lamou – Language Matters…


Download PDF Here

Language matters …It is the soul of a culture, says Audrey Lamou, as she explores the linguistic situation in Indonesia 

Linguistic Diversity, Development and Empowerment

For more than ten years, February 21st has been declared “International Mother Language Day” by UNESCO. What is actually the need for such a day and what can we expect from it? Defining “Mother Language” itself is not easy. It can refer equally to the language that a person has learnt first, that he identifies with or is identified as a native speaker of by others, that he knows best or finally that he uses most.

Many questions come to mind when we think about the situation in Indonesia, which is said to have one of the richest linguistic biodiversity in the world. What are the mother tongues of Indonesians? If “bahasa Indonesia” is both national and official language of Indonesian citizens, is it spoken in the immediate environment of its population and does it embrace all the heritage of the ethno linguistic groups? To what extent are these languages endangered or not? What responses can be considered?

An overview of languages of Indonesia

In Indonesia, the linguistic situation seems very complex at first sight. Some authors have counted from 300 up to 742 local languages, whereas Denys Lombard, for instance, states that there are 20 main languages, for which there are of course numerous variants. What is undeniable is that Indonesia is linguistically the most diverse country in all of Asia. The official language, Indonesian, is the medium of instruction at all levels of education, yet only about ten percent of the population speak Indonesian as their mother tongue. The constitution and an education act support the use of students’ mother tongues as mediums of instruction in the early grades. In practice, however, local languages are rarely used in formal government schools apart from being taught as subjects in some areas. “Local languages are more widely used in non-formal education, particularly in adult literacy.”

Contrary to what is often said though, “Indonesian is not an “artificial language”, “composed by heterogeneous elements” or “imposed from above” by the authorities of a State preoccupied by worries of unification.” Denys Lombard explains that it was chosen in 1928 by the young Dutch Indies nationalists, who decided to fix on a unique language, which would serve as an official language for future “Indonesia”. The vast majority of them opted for Malay, and not Javanese, even if this regional language was then spoken by two fifths of the population. Some have argued that Javanese language was sacrificed in Independent Indonesia, as illustrated by the poem Panglotjitaning basa jawi (1952), first published the monthly magazine of Balai Bahasa (the House of Language, 1948-1952), Medan Bahasa, and commented by Jérôme Samuel in Archipel.

The name of “bahasa Indonesia” was given to the language in 1928, and from 1972, Malaysian and Indonesian spellings were harmonized to facilitate book exchanges and cultural connections. So “bahasa Indonesia” is actually the most recent state of a much older language that has proliferated with an extreme vitality, enriching itself with new turns of phrase and numerous neologisms. Aside from the origin and the evolution of the language, we can of course salute this pillar of the “Pancasila” (“One Nation, One Language”), for it has unified writings and works of art, of authors and artists from different backgrounds of Indonesia, as underline by Goenawan Mohammad, for instance, when he declared “Dari deret nama itu tampak, mereka datang dari latar belakang yang beraneka ragam, tapi berada dalam satu tradisi–tradisi teater modern Indonesia. Bahasa Indonesia memungkinkan itu.” (“These names come from this line, they come from diverse backgrounds, but they are in one tradition of modern Indonesian theatre. Indonesian language made this possible”).

The main vocabulary characteristic of Indonesian is an extreme abundance of borrowed terms; we can easily distinguish three different levels corresponding to three major periods: the Sanskrit level (corresponding to the “Indianised period”), the Arab and Persian level (corresponding to the Islamization period) and the European, Portuguese and English level (corresponding to the colonization period). But what is interesting is that pronunciation for the last two, Arab and English words, is often faithful to its original accent.

A book by Alif Danya Munsyi, alias Remy Silado, states that “9 out of 10 Indonesian words are from abroad.” An example is given from an advertisement published in the newspaper, Kompas :

“Gadis 33 (Minangkabau language: tuan gadis, appellation for a girl, descendant of a king), Flores (Portuguese : floresce), Katolik (Greek: katolikos), sarjana (Javanese: sarjana), karyawati (Sanskrit: karyya), humoris (Latin : humor + Dutch: isch), sabar (Arab: shabran), setia (Sanskrit: satya), jujur (Javanese: jujur), anti merokok (Latin: anti, Dutch: roken), anti foya-foya (Manado: foya, meaning someone who likes partying), aktif (Dutch: actief) di gereja (Portuguese: igreja). Mengidamkan (Kawi language: idam, meaning desire) jejaka (Sundanese language: jajaka), maks 46 (Latin: maksimum), min 38 (Latin: minimum), penghasilan (Arab: hatsil) lumayan (Javanese: lumayan), kebapakan (Tionghoa – Chinese: ba-pa, meaning father), romantis (Dutch: romantisch), taat (Arab: thawa’iyat), punya (Sanskrit: mpu + nya) kharisma (Greek: kharisma).”

Spread by radio and written press, “bahasa Indonesia” has now reached everybody, down to the most isolated places, and only a small number of people do not understand at least a few words of it. On the other hand, as it is the only language for secondary and higher education, the youth tend to adopt it exclusively, to the detriment of their “regional languages” (“bahasa daérah”). And, up until now, the majority of Indonesian speakers, whose mother tongue is not “bahasa Indonesia”, agree that this language still lacks accuracy and preciseness. For instance, the Balinese word “nengel” (meaning that an object that is on the verge of falling down, from the corner of a table for instance) does not have an exact equivalent in Indonesian. Names of instruments, like the Balinese word “cobek ulekan”, also lose accuracy when translated into Indonesian.

What threats to linguistic diversity?

“The greatest linguistic diversity is found in some of the ecosystems richest in biodiversity inhabited by indigenous peoples, who represent around 4% of the world’s population, but speak at least 60% of its 6,000 or more languages.”

It is now widely recognized that a crisis is confronting many of the world’s languages, the vast majority of which are indigenous peoples’ languages. What is less known is that this phenomenon might actually be worse than the extinction of living species. UNESCO established that India, the United States, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico, countries that have great linguistic diversity, are also those, which have the greatest number of endangered languages. However, the situation is not universally alarming. Thus, “Papua New Guinea, the country which has the greatest linguistic diversity on the planet (more than 800 languages are believed to be spoken there), also has relatively few endangered languages (88).”

Languages carry much more than just words. A whole set of knowledge, a repertoire of traditions, cultural codes, ways of thinking and of seeing the world have been shaped into idioms for generations and centuries, and will never be fully rendered in a foreign language, or even a national language. It is an obvious yet not generally recognized truism that learning in a language that is not one’s own provides a double set of challenges: not only of learning a new language but also of learning new knowledge contained in that language. So, even if we can understand the argument that speaking a language such as English, French or Spanish can open up new worlds and is often a ticket to modernity, it is not a sufficient reason for discarding traditional habits and despising local languages in the education system.

Some argue that “tribalism is seen as a threat to the development of the nation, and it would not be acting responsibly to do anything which might seem, at least superficially, to aid in its preservation.” Indonesian constitution officially allows the use of local languages in early grades, in cases where they are necessary for the teaching of certain knowledge and particular know-how. In reality, bahasa Indonesia rules in all classrooms, and foreign languages also start to be heard everywhere, even when teachers do not completely master the syntax of these languages, like English or Mandarin.

Languages are not only essential to the identity of groups and individuals but also to their peaceful coexistence, especially in a context where several ethnics and cultures live side by side like in Indonesia. They constitute a strategic factor of progress towards sustainable development and a harmonious relationship between the global and the local context, here between Indonesia and Asia, and Indonesia and the rest of the world. Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, declared on the occasion of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, August, 9th 2008, that “the loss of these languages would not only weaken the world’s cultural diversity, but also our collective knowledge as a human race.” This day was organized, as explained by Koïchiro Matsuura, Director-General of UNESCO on this occasion, to make decisions in order to “achieve the six goals of education for all (EFA) and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on which the United Nations agreed in 2000 (…), to ensure that the importance of linguistic diversity and multilingualism in educational, administrative and legal systems, cultural expressions and the media, cyberspace and trade, is recognized at the national, regional and international levels.”

To take the example of cyberspace, let us examine Indonesian languages diversity on the web. Measuring the languages in the overall number of pages on the Web increasingly presents challenges for the reason that just because a page is on the Web does not mean it is used, or even “visited”. We should rather look at the way Internet is used and by whom. Another indicator is the number of pages per population ratio, to give an indication of the relative intensity of web authorship. A report by the Internet Governance Forum states that “the rich diversity of written pages is found in the country with the richest diversity of languages in [Asia], Indonesia. And it is interesting to note that there is significantly larger number of pages in Javanese (1.267.981 pages for 75.000.000 speakers  ratio: 1.92) compared to Indonesia (866.238 pages for 140.000.000 speakers  ratio: 1.31).” But we should bear in mind that the US, which does not equal any Asian country as far as linguistic diversity is concerned, still controls much of the machinery behind the World Wide Web. So the relationship between languages on the Internet and diversity of languages within a country indicates that even with a globalized network, nation states have a role to play in encouraging language diversity in cyberspace.

What can be done?

Of course, cyberspace is not the only place where languages are at risk. Data are worrying: Lucía Iglesias Kuntz states that “out of the approximately 6,000 existing languages in the world, more than 200 have become extinct, 538 are critically endangered, 502 severely endangered, 632 definitely endangered and 607 unsafe.” So, what responses can be considered to threats to linguistic diversity? The first possible response is doing nothing. With the death of Marie Smith Jones, the Eyak language of Alaska (United States) died out in 2008 and Ubykh (Turkey) vanished in 1992 with the demise of Tevfik Esenç. These 200 languages have become extinct in the last three generations.

This figure is dramatic, but some scientists believe that this is a natural process and that we should not interfere. A second reaction consists in documenting endangered languages: the interactive digital version of this Atlas provides updated data about approximately 2,500 endangered languages around the world and can be continually supplemented, corrected and updated. The third reaction is to engage in revitalization activities, but this is another issue, and involves different actors. “The study of languages is a scientific enterprise; the effort to preserve them is not. It is a political question.” Books and recordings can preserve languages, but only people and communities can keep them alive. “It is a good thing to record structural features of threatened small languages”, but this action as well as any other, already has political overtones.

A language is a living entity and needs to be kept alive by a community of speakers, who will transmit their heritage to future generations through that means. Communities of people can only exist in viable environments, favoured by a support from States, especially in a thriving globalized context. If conditions are not favourable, communities and languages die along with their speakers. So this issue not only concerns local and national cultures, but also cultural goods in an international and increasingly globalized context. The border between a “natural” evolution and a political will is very thin, which is why we need to keep our eyes open.

On the other hand, we can also argue that a language being a living entity, its evolution is natural and cannot be stopped. In Jakarta and in the big cities in Indonesia, it is now normal to hear English words slip into the conversation, words like “sorry”, “jealous” and sometimes-entire sentences. This tendency is also spreading to more remote areas, where the vocabulary for all the new consumption goods and technologies comes abroad. The spelling and pronunciation of these foreign words are also now “Indonesianized” – “komputer”, “knalpot”, or “telpon” are a few examples.

Audrey Lamou was born in the South of France in 1982. She studied English Literature and Civilization in Bordeaux and in Trinity College, Dublin, where she stayed for 2 years teaching French in the Alliance Française Dublin and contributing as an editor in the magazine Authentik. She also graduated in Pedagogy for French as a Foreign Language, and she then joined the French Cultural Centre in Jakarta as an International Volunteer. After two years there, she settled for Bali, where she has now been director of the Alliance Française in Denpasar for almost three years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.