Saving Local Languages

The concern over the world’s endangered indigenous languages is not a new issue. In 1951, UNESCO held a convention on the language of education on a worldwide basis. Its main purpose was to promote and preserve indigenous languages from extinction. Attended by a committee of language pundits worldwide, the convention produced a general consensus that a child’s mother tongue should become the medium of instruction.

There are three important reasons for this.

First, psychologically the child’s native language serves as a meaningful sign for expression and understanding.

Second, socio-linguistically, it is a means of identification for interaction among the society members.

Third, educationally learning using a familiar linguistic medium is easier than learning using an unfamiliar one.

In the context of our national education, these three reasons have been counter-evidenced by the socio-political reasons, resulting in the gradual abandonment of native language use. The impact of the political pressure on using the national language in education nationwide, i.e. Bahasa Indonesia for the sake of maintaining the spirit of nationalism, has been so profound that learners’ native languages have become marginalized. Bahasa Indonesia is, after all, the declared official language that must be used in all domains of life, including in education.

Language indoctrination via the use of national language both as the medium of instruction and as the means of interaction among learners in school vicinity has in fact significantly contributed to the gradual endangerment of local languages.

What is more, the exponential rate of bilingual schooling, which ambitiously seeks proficiency in foreign languages such as English, has been an inevitable consequence of a globalized world, contesting the use of learners’ own native language. Since childhood, learners have been introduced and frequently exposed to English with the hope that they can speak, read and write in the internationally known language. This is often done at the expense of their native languages.

Socio-linguistically, in this language contact situation, it is the dominant language that wins the acceptance from language users. And it is also very likely that those who once used their native language as a means of communication among society members may dramatically shift to using the dominant language.
Thus language users’ attitude toward the language they perceive modern, international, prestigious, and easy to express things effectively may also be the driving force to abandon the use of native language.

It may come as no surprise then that our indigenous languages — our invaluable cultural heritage — are facing the threat of extinction. To date, of 746 indigenous languages we have, 10 have vanished. Many linguists predict that in the years to come gradually but definitely the number of our vanishing local languages is likely to rise sharply.

Attempts to revitalize and then promote local languages can be made possible through creating a print-rich environment among young people. Indeed it is the most effective way of helping youngsters appreciates their own language heritage.

Printed materials written in local languages depicting local cultures and values in the form of novels, short stories fictions, newspapers and other ethnic literary works should be introduced in an early stage of learning as they help revive the feel of respecting and appreciating local wisdoms. Through this, curiosity of learning one’s own ethnic identity is aroused and fondness of using native language both orally and in writing can be nurtured.

Literacy theory suggests that providing a print-rich environment is an effective way of making people become literate in both their native and foreign language. It also further claims that literacy ability in one’s native language can transfer to ability in learning a foreign language as the former provides a short-cut to the latter.
Establishing a community library is one alternative that can facilitate the availability of printed reading materials for people from all walks of life. It should also serve as a means of collecting and documenting research findings related to the national indigenous languages.

Although this requires a great deal of financial resources, the investment for such an effort is worth doing for the preservation of our precious language heritage.

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