Linguistic Imperialism versus Human Rights

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By: Setiono Sugiharto

The recent report on the moribund state of Sekak — a vernacular spoken by the Sea Tribe People of the Bangka Belitung province — is only one piece of evidence that evinces the possible demise of the nation’s local geniuses.

With only 150 adult speakers over the age of 35, (Kompas, Nov. 20), and while the threshold level of a survived language should reach 100,000 speakers, this vernacular will slowly but surely vanish in the future.

It has been reported that the primary reason for the decreasing use of the language is due to the fact that young speakers prefer to communicate in the Bangka-Belitung-Malay dialect with their families. In a situation where one language is preferred over another due to its acclaimed status as a unified language or a language of national identity, linguistic imperialism can come into play.

First introduced by English linguist Robert Phillipson, linguistic imperialism — as one form of linguicism (analogous to racism and sexism) — creates inequalities in terms of power and culture between languages.

Therefore, in the case of Sekak vernacular and other countless vernaculars spoken in many provinces in Indonesia, these vernaculars are often stigmatized and suppressed in favor of Indonesian (derived from a Malay dialect) as a national language. This showcases a specific instance of linguistic imperialism.

In the Indonesian context, linguistic imperialism can be either externally or internally driven in a contact language situation. Externally-driven linguistic imperialism occurs due to the vociferous promotion of Indonesian as a unified language and the primary language used in school instruction. The obligatory use of Indonesian in schools among students from multilingual backgrounds exemplifies this kind of linguistic imperialism. Another instance is the exposure to print environments like mass media, which vehemently uses the norms of correct and good Indonesian.

Internally-driven linguistic imperialism, by contrast, takes place when a speaker of one language vernacular (first language) admirably recognizes the superior status of Indonesian (second language) as a lingua franca within the nation over his/her first language and shifts his/her preferences to the second language, thereby excluding his/her first language in daily communication with peers and family.

Admittedly, it is the former kind of linguistic imperialism that is most tangible. The latter is actually the psychological manifestation of the former.

Yet, linguistic imperialism should not be understood narrowly as the dominant and hegemonic use of Indonesian over its vernaculars. The fact that one vernacular is dominantly used or regarded as prestigious for cultural and political reasons and excludes, and suppresses other vernaculars can also be considered linguistic imperialism.

It seems sensible to say that most vernacular languages in Indonesia, given their limited numbers of native speakers and their ancillary status, belong to minority languages that are prone to subjugation and exclusion.

Despite efforts to upgrade their status as equal to Indonesian and foreign languages, these efforts rarely receive support from the state. Also, their existence is hardly recognized, let alone preserved through various documentations.

Unlike gender, race and religion, all of which constitute fundamental aspects of human rights whose existence must be respected and acknowledged, language is seldom considered an essential trait that should not be subjugated and marginalized.

Yet, concomitant to the acknowledgement of equality in terms of gender, race, and religion, the rights of minority languages along with their speakers have now been loudly voiced through research in the area of linguistic human rights.

Of greater relevance to the use of one’s native language in education is what is known as educational linguistic human rights, which appreciates and respects the students’ rights and freedoms to use their native languages in the context of school.

An important insight from this that deserves serious attention is that it has been argued that educational human rights can serve as a way to prevent linguistic imperialism and to promote positive policies related to minority languages.

In the absence of policies on minority languages, insights from research on educational human rights certainly offer valuable input on the conservation of local geniuses long neglected by the government. The problem, however, is whether we have political will and are committed to investing serious effort into doing so.

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Footnote: This opinion article was displayed in an online newspaper, The Jakarta Post, in Jakarta, Indonesia; and in the paper edition, it is available at page 7. The original full text is also able to be searched at: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2012/12/22/linguistic-imperialism-vs-human-rights.html [accessed in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia: 24th December 2012].

The writer is an associate English professor at Atma Jaya Catholic University, Jakarta, Indonesia.

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