As English spreads, Indonesians fear for their language

♦ The newspaper article summarized below, concerns the impact that the desire to learn the current global language, English, can have on a non-English culture. (The article summarized on August 31, Western Schools Sprout in South Korea, concerns the same theme.)

• The current article describes the popularity of English in Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world. The official language of Indonesia is “Bahasa Indonesia.” (“Bahasa” means “language.”) It became the official language in 1945 when the country became independent. According to the Wikipedia article on Indonesia, it was “constructed” in the 1920s from a dialect of the Malay language which had been in use as a lingua franca in the area for centuries. (Indonesians speak over 700 different languages and dialects.)

§ In an article published in The New York Times, on July 25, 2010, Norimitsu Onishi discusses the increasing popularity of English in Indonesia—and the problems and controversies that have accompanied this development. The article, is entitled “As English Spreads, Indonesians Fear for Their Language.

• As Ms Onishi explains, although people in many parts of the world are worried about the spread of English, Indonesians have a good reason for being particularly worried. This, she says, is because, for a long time, Indonesian leaders have been encouraging the use of Bahasa Indonesia as a way of uniting a country whose citizens belong to hundreds of ethnic groups, each with one or more languages of its own. From 1800 up to the beginning of the Second World War, Indonesia had been a Dutch colony and the Dutch language had been the main language of business and government. The leaders of the newly-independent country did not like the idea of giving such importance to Dutch or any other European language which could not be understood by most Indonesians.

• General Suharto, who ruled Indonesia from 1967 until 1998 believed strongly in the importance of Bahasa Indonesia, and while he was in power, he restricted the use of other languages. However, since Suharto resigned in 1998 these restrictions have been relaxed and the use of English has greatly increased. Ms Onishi emphasizes that Indonesians want to learn English not simply because it is useful for business and study, but also because the use of English has become extremely fashionable. And, as a result it provides those who can use it with social status.

• Just as in pre-independence times, many Indonesians thought that people who could speak Dutch were better than people who could not, now they think that those who can speak English are better than those who cannot. Public schools still operate in Bahasa Indonesia, but in response to the increased demand, hundreds of private schools that operate entirely in English have opened. Only the more expensive ones have native-speakers as teachers.

• One result of these trends is that many Indonesian children are growing up not being able to speak Bahasa Indonesian well. This does not necessarily trouble them. In fact, according to Ms Onishi these young people are often proud of their inability to speak the official language properly. For them and their parents, this is another status symbol.

• Ms Onishi does point out however that there are signs of public resistance to the increasing popularity of English. She tells the story of how, in 2009, the woman selected as Miss Indonesia could not understand much Bahasa Indonesia and had to have the help of interpreters to answer the judges' questions. The judges were severely criticized in the media and in the “blogosphere” for giving her the prize.