Indigenous language policy as a national cultural strategy

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 natural phenomena.

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 Indonesia.

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 terminologies.

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 sidelined.

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 Language Teaching.

Tinggalkan Balasan