Indigenous Languages in Danger of Disappearing

Indonesia is known not only for its multi-ethnic richness, but also for its linguistically diversified provinces and regions. Recent documented records by the National Education Ministry indicate there are 746 indigenous languages in the country, 10 of which have died out.

Worse, according to noted linguists Stephen A. Wurm in his Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing (published by UNESCO 2001), the number of vanishing languages is likely to rise sharply.

Among the regions in Indonesia, the province of Maluku, according to research findings by J. Margaret Florey and Aone van Engelenhoven in 2001, forms one of the most severely endangered linguistic regions. It was found that the languages of Teun, Nila and Serua spoken in Southwest Maluku are in danger of disappearing.

Previously reliable data found in Ethnologue: Languages of the World edited by Barbara F. Grimes found there are 30 languages (classified as of non-Austronesia and Austronesia origin) in North Maluku which have the potential of disappearing, with the number of speakers ranging from 1,00 to 40,000. These languages (from the least to the most numbers of speakers) include Kadai, Mangole, Maba, Loloda and Tobelo.

An updated record in Atlas Bahasa Tanah Maluku (Maluku Languages Atlas) by Mark Taber et al. (reported by Osamu Sakiyama) lists 15 languages having fewer than 1,000 speakers. They include the Nakaela language of Seram (five speakers), the Amahi and Paulohi languages (spoken by 50 people each) and the South Nuaulu and Yalahatan languages (having 1,000 speakers each).

From these figures, one can reasonably assume that gradually but definitely these languages will become extinct. The threshold level commonly used to ensure the survival of a language is that the number of speakers speaking the language must reach 100,000.
Another region in Indonesia noted for having many endangered indigenous languages is Papua.

Based on a wide array of sources such as key informants, people living in the region and documents by linguists from the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), there are 111 endangered languages, well documented in Index of Irian Jaya Languages: A Special Publication of Irian Bulletin of Irian Jaya by Peter J. Silzer and Helja Heikkinen Clouse.

Out of this figure, nine languages have become extinct (e.g. Bapu, Dabe, Wares, Taworta, Waritai, Murkim, Walak, Meoswar and Lagenyem), 32 languages are terminally endangered or moribund (among others, Yoki, Liki, Mander, Pawi, Yoki and Kapori) and 70 languages are seriously endangered (among others, Biak, Yali, Sentani, Maibrat, Moni, Awyu and Ngalum).

The Alor and Pantar Project (from 2003-2007), funded by the Netherlands Organization of Scientific Research, Leiden University and Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Documentation Program, has documented endangered languages spoken in eastern Indonesia, in Alor and Pantar, such as Klon, Kafoa (West Alor), Abui (Central Alor) and Teiwa (West Pantar).

Dayak languages found in West Kalimantan are also believed to be threatened. There are 26 languages, it is reported, having 500 or so speakers. They include such languages as Bukat, Punan, Kayaan, Sungkung and Konyeh.

There are still other endangered local languages in other provinces and regions, documented in Bahasa Daerah di Indonesia (Indigenous Languages in Indonesia) published by the Language Center in 1985, which have fewer than 100,000 speakers. These include Tondano (Sulawesi), Tanimbar (Southwest Nusa), Alas (Sumatra), Mamuju (Sulawesi) and Ogan (Sumatra).

Language endangerment is a sign of language extinction, which eventually leads to language death. Some possible reasons have been proposed to account for why languages become endangered.

Some of the extreme reasons are linguicide (linguistic suicide) — a term often associated with genocide, epidemics and natural catastrophe.

Another reason is speakers gradually shifting to the dominant language in a language contact situation. Still, another reason is speakers’ own preference of shifting to other languages they think are more prestigious and modern than their own native languages.

Yet, the most powerful force behind language disappearance is socio-political, manifested primarily via language policy, language indoctrination through education, repression and pressure to use the official and national language over local languages, which has been and continues to be the case in the Indonesian context.

Given the relatively small number of speakers, it is difficult to guarantee the continued existence of endangered indigenous languages in modern Indonesian society. To save them from extinction, some concrete steps need to be taken.

The state’s budget needs to be allocated to stimulate research in endangered language documentation. The compilation of documents containing data on endangered languages can help maintain save from extinction.

Indigenous language revitalization is a must. Thanks to the regional autonomy granted by the central government, local language revival can now be feasibly realized through regional language policies that make indigenous languages a compulsory subject in school. Education then has the responsibility for improving students’ ethnic identity awareness.

This can encourage learners to use their local language not only at school, but also at home. Backed up with ethnic identity awareness, literacy programs need to be promoted among youngsters to teach them to respect and appreciate their native languages.

Only in this way can endangered indigenous languages — a nation’s precious cultural heritage — be maintained and conserved in this globalized world.

The writer (Setiono Sugiharto) is editor-in-chief of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching. He can be reached at