What is the language situation in Indonesia?


Anyone reading this will be aware that Papua New Guinea has more languages than any other country. But not everyone may know which country has the second-largest number of languages: Indonesia.
SIL’s Ethnologue listing of languages records 707 living languages in Indonesia (compared to PNG with 853 and number three Nigeria with 526 languages). Of these roughly half are in the Melanesian provinces of Papua and West Papua.
Most parts of Papua New Guinea are united linguistically by Tok Pisin. Similarly, Indonesia has a common language that is spoken by a majority of its citizenship. In English we call this language “Indonesian”. Indonesians call it “Bahasa Indonesia”.
In PNG some people call it “Bahasa”, but in Indonesian itself “bahasa” just means “language” (like “tok” in “Tok Pisin”), so “Bahasa Indonesia” means “the Indonesian language”.
But while Papua New Guineans continue to use the colonial language, English, for education and government administration, when Indonesia attained independence it immediately dropped the language of its Dutch colonial masters. This was a reaction against the brutality and racism of centuries of Dutch colonial rule and of the fighting against the Dutch who tried to block Indonesian independence after World War II.
For many years the government even made it illegal to use Dutch in radio, publications, or schools.
Indonesian is based on Malay, which was used as a common language by traders and Muslim and Christian missionaries before and during the long Dutch colonial period. It is written with the European alphabet, with the government setting the official spellings of words. Indonesian is basically the same language as Malaysian Malay, and in 1972 the Indonesian and Malaysian governments agreed on a common spelling to make books written in either Indonesian or Malaysian Malay accessible to readers in both countries.
Indonesian is the language of public education, so it is spoken by people in all areas of the country, including Papua and West Papua, where it is even used as the common language of groups such as the OPM who are campaigning for a Papua that is independent of Indonesia.
Just as an increasing number of Papua New Guinean families with mixed backgrounds or who live in urban areas use Tok Pisin as a home language, around a fifth of all households in Indonesia now use Indonesian rather than a local language at home.
These local languages have very different histories and levels of social importance. The language spoken by the largest number of people is Javanese, with more than 68 million speakers. Three other local languages (Sundanese, Malay, and Madurese) have more speakers than the entire population of PNG. These large numbers of speakers contrast with the small number of speakers of many other local languages such as Skou (700), spoken in the border area near Vanimo, or Amahai (50), spoken in the Moluccan Islands. ‘
Some languages, such as Balinese, Sundanese, or Javanese, have long histories of written literature with their own alphabets, while some smaller languages, especially those in Papua, still have no formal system of writing.
In contrast to the Papua New Guinean government, the Indonesian national and regional governments give recognition and support for local languages.
While documents and signs from the national government are in Indonesian, signs from local governments, such as road signs or signs outside provincial or municipal offices, are often bilingual. This is especially common in Bali and Java, where the languages are written in their own alphabets.
While the language of education in all public schools is Indonesian, in theory schools should teach students the language of the area where they live for several hours a week. In a few areas, local languages are taught from grade one until the end of high school, while in many areas this is done only in the first three years of schooling.
In some areas, however, where language groups tend to be small and without written literature, especially in eastern Indonesia, schools still have not implemented local language classes. The local language used in schools is chosen because it is the original language of the area. This means that in ethnically mixed urban centres, where many or even most students come from other areas, children often learn a language that is not the language spoken at home.
Recently this has become a matter for community discussion when the local language of Jayapura was chosen for introduction as a primary school subject, even though most residents of Jayapura are not even Melanesian at all.
In contrast to PNG, the Indonesian government plays an important part in the development and documentation of both Indonesian and local languages. In PNG, the only dictionaries of Tok Pisin are those released by overseas publishers.
In Indonesia, not only does the government itself publish dictionaries of Indonesian, it has linguists whose work it is to regulate spelling and coin new Indonesian words for new technology and institutions. Directly through this centre and local governments, and indirectly through grants to universities, it also supports the compilation of dictionaries of local languages and the production of textbooks in local languages.
In PNG these tasks are carried out by missionary translators or scholars from foreign countries. It is ironic that the Indonesian government has actually done more to document the languages of Indonesian Papua than the government of independent PNG has for the languages spoken here.
What the PNG government does do more energetically than the Indonesian government is to support English education.
In Indonesia, English education is compulsory in public schools for only several hours a week in the last three years of high school, and is offered as an optional subject in only some primary schools. Many highly educated Indonesians cannot communicate in English; I have found that even in meetings with university professors and administrators in Indonesia, I often need an interpreter.
Persons in Jayapura have told me how they envy the high level of English that they see when they go across the border to Vanimo.
It is interesting to see how history and national ideology have resulted in two very different approaches to language use and language planning in the two most multilingual countries in the world. While Indonesia has emphasised local languages and the national lingua franca, PNG has emphasised English, the most widely spoken international language and the language of its colonial master. There is much that each country can learn from the other.

  • Professor Volker is a linguist living in New Ireland, and an Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University in Australia. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at [email protected] Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.