Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Is English threatening the future of the Indonesian language?

The ubiquity of the English language in an increasingly globalised world has served to create connections between countless disparate people, yet it can also threaten to overwhelm local languages and in time may render some obsolete. On this note, the NY Times has an interesting article up at the moment about an unusual phenomenon in Indonesia - a growing segment of the native-born population who speak English but don't really speak Indonesian. I'm a little sceptical about whether this is as common as the article seems to imply, but it is intriguing nonetheless.

Apparently, the emerging upper-middle class is displaying a marked preference for sending their kids to private schools that teach mostly in English. Which means that there are more and more Indonesian children for whom English becomes their first language, and who speak barely enough Bahasa Indonesia to get by. This even leads to problems communicating with their parents, who presumably speak Indonesian far better than they do English. English-speaking also confers a higher status and a way of tapping into the broader international community and popular culture trends. Clearly some are worried about the implications of this.

The most obvious example recently was the victory of Karenina Sunny Halim as Miss Indonesia 2009. Halim, who was home-schooled in Jakarta in English by her American mother, was barely able to understand the judges' questions in the beauty pageant and had to have someone interpret for her. Something of a joke, really, although Ms Halim's sheer hotness is not in question.

I can personally attest to seeing this phenomenon play out to a small degree. I have nieces in Jakarta whose English ability doesn't just far outstrip that of their parents, but would put most Australian or American kids of their age to shame. However, they are still effectively bilingual, and their ability to speak Indonesian is similar or slightly better than their English.

One thing the article doesn't mention is that Bahasa Indonesia is essentially a lingua franca - that is, a language used for communication between native speakers of other languages. The first language of most Indonesians is their local tongue - be it Balinese, Javanese, Sundanese, and so on. It is really only in Jakarta that the majority of people speak Indonesian as a mother tongue. Throughout the rest of the archipelago, Indonesian already has millions of people who speak Indonesian relatively poorly, because they don't necessarily need to use it day to day.

That being the case, is the Indonesian language's position precarious enough for it to fade in importance if English were to rival its position as a regional lingua franca? It is unlikely. In a country with 300 ethnolinguistic groups, successive governments have prioritised national unity above all else. With Bahasa Indonesia undoubtedly one of the key elements in holding the nation together, the powers-that-be are unlikely to let it fade too far in importance.

But the NY Times article focuses only on one particular demographic; the wealthier and educated urban elites. These form a very small segment of a country in which half the population earns less than US$2 a day. The man in the street or the kampung is a long, long way off from sending his kids to an English-speaking private school. Because fluency in English is so tied to wealth and social class, and because the wealth gap from top to bottom is so enormous, it is hard to imagine that the phenomenon the Times observes in the upscale malls of Jakarta will trickle its way down to the average Indonesian any time soon.


  1. This is just sensationalist journalism and the story just doesn't fit with reality. In my 10 years in Jakarta I've only come across one or two kids who speak better English than Indonesian. Yes some Indonesians do have problems speaking Indonesian - esp if they have lived abroad in their formative years, but then overall they probably account for less than .1% of the population.

  2. @ Tempo Dulu:

    I'm in agreement with you. While I'm in no doubt this phenomenon does exist to a certain extent, as you say it is still on a tiny scale.

    I suspect the journalist responsible might have been exposed to that very limited sector of the Jakarta population in which this is quite common, and then assumed it was happening everywhere else in Indonesia as well.

  3. The 'problem', if that's what it is, is certainly just among a v small segment of the upper class. This piece gives an interesting slightly counter-view to it, (not written by me)

  4. I would just like to comment on one aspect of your story:
    "I have nieces in Jakarta whose English ability doesn't just far outstrip that of their parents, but would put most Australian or American kids of their age to shame"

    This is so true! Most of my cousins in India have English speaking and writing abilities much better than my own, and I was a pretty good student here.

    I put this down to the absolute rubbish English teaching in primary school - I don't recall ever learning about English usage, syntax, or even grammar in primary/high school. My sister (who just entered high school) has had a similar experience. What do the teachers expect students to do - randomly pick English up?

  5. @ Nihar:

    I should state that my two nieces are exceptionally bright kids. But I think anyone can learn a language and speak it well if they have the opportunities, the environment and the desire.

    I agree the Australian school system could do better. But I think this is somewhere that parents need to pick up the slack. Kids will become good at English if they read a lot, but most kids don't really have the desire; or a family environment that sufficiently encourages it.

  6. I'm currently a teacher at one of those "private English schools" and the students here seem in no danger of losing their Bahasa Indonesia. Most of my students speak a very rough form of English that is very far away from native speaking levels. I even find myself having to fight off the bad English. I have one student who speaks great English and that's because he's lived in the US his entire life and just moved. The students prefer to communicate in Bahasa Indonesia if ever given a choice. So I personally don't think English is going to replace anything here anytime soon.

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