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Jakarta Post

Youth Pledge: One language, but don't stigmatize multilinguals

  • Rasman

    English language teachers and researcher

Yogyakarta   /   Tue, October 3, 2017   /   02:28 pm
Youth Pledge: One language, but don't stigmatize multilinguals  Some worry that more English speaking Indonesians signal “declining nationalism”. (Shutterstock/File)

It has been 89 years since the delegates to the second Youth Congress in Jakarta pledged to make Bahasa Indonesia the lingua franca among hundreds of spoken languages across the archipelago dubbed Nusantara. In selecting the new lingua franca, the young nationalists deliberately distanced themselves from Dutch, spoken by the colonial regime, and strategically bypassed Javanese, spoken by the ethnically dominant group, to better instill a sense of unity into the multi-ethnic society.

The success of adopting Indonesian as the national language was regarded by many scholars as the envy of the multilingual world. Imposing a new language, originally Malay,  over diverse ethnic groups, was a nearly unrealistic ideal. The acquisition of Indonesian indeed progressed, though slowly. By 1971, 43 years after the Oct. 28, 1928 congress, only 40 percent out of the then population of 118 million had said they spoke Indonesian.

Today, globalization and technology advancement have exposed the younger generations to English. With the rise of multilinguals, we see young people often switching from one language to another when communicating.

As usual, some worry that more English speaking Indonesians signal “declining nationalism”, while others see English proficiency as a vital capital to gain previously-inaccessible knowledge and to actively participate in the increasingly competitive world. Indeed the Youth Pledge declared: “One nation […], one motherland […], one language -- Indonesian”, but surely it didn’t mean anyone should limit their language skills.

As a teacher, I had asked my students to pinpoint the source of their hesitance in speaking English. One reason they cited was the difficulty of finding English speaking partners. Most were worried about stigma and mockery from friends, as in: “You’re an Indonesian, why speak English?”

Therefore the learning outcomes in class are no longer determined only by how well teachers provide the materials but also how deep they can understand the complexities of such students’ beliefs. Learning to speak English requires hours of practices beyond class hours. The ease of finding a community of practice outside the classroom is, therefore, a highly important predictor of students’ achievement in developing English proficiency.

A community of practice, as coined by the anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, is a group of people sharing the same concerns, passions, and interests and attempts to reach a particular goal through their interactions. Such a community is essential because learning a language is social.

A language is acquired through social interactions in a given sociocultural context, not just by reading a grammar book. Myriads of mistakes and feedbacks from peers are necessary to develop language proficiency especially when it comes to learning a foreign language like English.

Therefore, it is vital for us, not only language teachers, to building a more positive attitude towards the use of English, at least by not labeling anyone as less nationalistic when trying to speak English. Commenting people for their “bad English” might be less hurtful than questioning people’s central identity.

No doubt Indonesia is a language of unity that we should be proud of, but stigmatizing Indonesians who speak English doesn’t help at all to strengthen that unity.


The writer lectures at the English Language Education Department and Language Instructor at The Centre for Language Development, Yogyakarta State University. He holds a master degree in Teaching English as a Foreign Language) from University of Birmingham, United Kingdom. The views are personal.


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.