Whatever happen to formal Indonesian language?


Visit any hip (or hipster) spots in your town and you’ll likely to eavesdrop on a young Indonesian mixing Indonesian and English in a sentence. Many people do it so casually, effortlessly, and fluently, often times switching Indonesian and English back and forth without thinking, giving some people a bugging question what’s behind this funny phenomena in the first place.

Many Indonesians, especially those who have been abroad, even admitted that they prefer to write in English than in Indonesian because it’s somewhat easier. This is obviously an amusing answer, but this preference of English over Indonesian is an epidemic. From Balinese poet to established writers, many will confidently state their conviction of using English than Indonesian in some of their writing.

I can admit that there’s a peculiar simplicity in English language that makes it easier to express something complicated than in Indonesian language. English also still sounds heavenly when intermixed with Latin or Spanish words. And it’s an amazingly versatile language that anyone can simply adapt according to their own rules. As a language that has undergone so much history and adaptations, it seems that English has developed admirable feats that fit people’s diverse thoughts.

Some people will argue that it’s Indonesian language’s mechanical sentence structure that makes it less admirable to people, which makes sense if we see our obsessions with acronyms. But I’ve also seen some people having troubles expressing their inner-most expressions, as if Indonesian words can’t quite reach those hidden corners of thoughts.

Language is logic. And grammar reflects thinking processes. So where does this linguistic paralysis stem from?

Since living in one of the idyllic corners of Ubud, I’ve gathered with people from across Indonesia who still speak Indonesian with a slight local accent. Then it struck me that most conversations happening in this archipelago probably occur not in Indonesian language but in the local dialects, which is both enlightening and thought-provoking since growing up in Jakarta made so easily think that Indonesian is everyone’s mother tongue.

So if Indonesian isn’t a primary day-to-day language in this country, what about back then before Indonesian language was being formalized as the national language? An even more intriguing question is: what language did our Founding Fathers use in navigating its way out of colonialism?

In a study by Scott Paauw of University of Rochester, Paauw explored the claim that Indonesia’s national language was “the most spectacular linguistic phenomenon of our age”. It was indeed a remarkable success for developing a national language spoken by ethnic groups speaking 600 different dialects.

Indonesian language was officiated during the Sumpah Pemuda II in 1928, in which two years prior, the discussion about Indonesia as a national language itself was still done in Dutch. The choosing of Indonesian as the primary national language was a no-brainer, since for 2000 years it had always been the main language used by merchants and traders. The other candidate, Javanese language, though spoken by most people, it was also the most stratified language and will give Javanese a bias privilege.

Prior to this, Dutch was the primary language used by Indonesian folks of higher status, who probably either went to Dutch schools or abroad. In discussions about revolting colonialism, our Founding Fathers also primarily used Dutch since that was the language they were most often used.

Paauw went on to explain how it was during the short Japanese occupation in 1942 that Indonesian language truly flourished. With Dutch language being prohibited, Indonesian language could actually be introduced better to Indonesians through various means. Schools, mass media, and administration offices began switching from Dutch to Indonesian language, allowing for new terminologies to develop, and foster Indonesian identity through this fairly new national language.

In other words, the effort to put Indonesian language as the primary national language wasn’t simply a formalization step as a newly independent country. It was a dedicated effort to instill a nationalistic mindset and identity. Through this officiated language, Indonesians can each relate with one another.

But still, seven decades later, a well-spoken Indonesian language hasn’t seemed to dig its teeth into the flesh and bones of our everyday lives. Its rigidness probably hinders the expressive and spontaneous nature of our people who don’t like to treat others as strangers with formal welcomes. The formal Indonesian language tends to feel distant than elegant, restricting than empowering.

And what if our misunderstandings, ignorance, and therefore, intolerance stem from our inability to communicate with each other clearly? Perhaps it’s necessary to revisit the history and purpose of this language that had a tremendous impact in solidifying the Indonesian identity. Afterall, we don’t want to be lost in translations.

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