Exaggerating the ‘decline’ of the Indonesian language
A few readers of this blog might know that I have a background doing research on political affairs in Southeast Asia. I spent two years studying and developing a decent enough facility with Bahasa Indonesia, the lingua franca of the archipelagic nation that is the fourth largest country by population in the world. I even got a chance to use it while I was interning for the World Bank in Jakarta in 2005. And that’s why I find Norimitsu Onishi’s article in the New York Times warning that Indonesian kids don’t speak Bahasa anymore so weird. When I was in Jakarta, nobody really spoke capital-I Indonesian. Which leads me to wonder how much time Onishi has really spent using the language with everyone from the non-wealthy to the well-to-do in Jakarta.
Here’s the nut of the story:
“They know they’re Indonesian,” Ms. Sugiarto, 34, said. “They love Indonesia. They just can’t speak Bahasa Indonesia. It’s tragic.”
Indonesia’s linguistic legacy is increasingly under threat as growing numbers of wealthy and upper-middle-class families shun public schools where Indonesian remains the main language but English is often taught poorly. They are turning, instead, to private schools that focus on English and devote little time, if any, to Indonesian.
For some Indonesians, as mastery of English has become increasingly tied to social standing, Indonesian has been relegated to second-class status. In extreme cases, people take pride in speaking Indonesian poorly.
What’s so wrong about this article is its conclusion that Indonesian is becoming ’second-class.’ If you spend enough time around actual Indonesians, you start to understand that Bahasa Indonesia has always had a second-class status.
The article goes through the familiar history of the language – that the Dutch chose it as the language of colonial administration. What it leaves out is that part of the reason for doing so was that it was a relatively easy language for anyone to pick up. Its relative simplicity is an important fact when you contemplate the number of languages spoken across the Indonesian islands, as well as the complexity of some of the major tongues like Javanese and Sundanese with their caste-oriented manners. Insisting that other ethnic groups of Indonesia speak these languages would have caused an immediate breaking point for a massive civil war. Which is why the Dutch first, and subsequently the founders of the Indonesian nation selected Bahasa, a relative of Malay that already served as a trading language,
That’s why everybody in Indonesia speaks Indonesian, but no one really speaks Indonesian. In Jakarta, you’ll find kids speaking a pidgin, a mash-up of Javanese, Betawi, and Bahasa Indonesia. When they hear your intermediate Indonesian, they start chuckling as you use formal pronouns like saya and anda for ‘I’ and ‘you’ because they use more informal and even slang elements of the language in their daily communications. The formality that you might hear coming out of President Susilo Bambang Yudohoyo’s mouth in a major speech or read in formal government publications, the kind that Onishi’s article laments, doesn’t really exist in daily communication in a marketplace or at home for most of Indonesia’s 250 million people with their hundreds of native languages.
Moreover, this isn’t a language known primarily for its beauty – for instance, it’s hard to imagine anyone telling you that you really haven’t read Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet unless you read it in Indonesian, the way Russophiles talk about Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Fittingly in the series’s first novel, This Earth of Mankind, Pramoedya’s colonial-era protagonist Minke is scolded by his mother for writing newspaper articles in Dutch because they aren’t written in her native language – Javanese. While Pramoedya wrote in Bahasa Indonesia, he did so because it was the language of the times – his works like those of the Dutch author Multatuli might have been composed in that language had he written them in an earlier generation.
So it’s certainly true that Indonesia needs a working lingua franca so that a Javanese housewife can transact business with a Buginese hawker in a district on the outskirts of Jakarta. But it’s not like a decline of the most formal, proper Indonesian would represent the decline of one of the world’s most elegant languages. Bahasa Indonesia has always been a language of function more than a language of form. If English begins to take on that function, it’s not like it will be the end of Indonesia. The peoples in that country, educated or dirt poor, will continue speaking their mother tongues while finding a language that allows them to communicate in spite of their legion linguistic differences.