Preserving the Malay language

A recent conference in Brunei Darussalam on the Malay language ended with an appeal by Indonesian and Malaysian participants to cleanse the language of foreign influences.

This somewhat nationalistic appeal, however, raises the big question of just how an individual or institution can protect a language from foreign influences in the globalization era.

Dendy Sugono, the head of the Indonesian delegation at the conference, raised the issue of protecting the language, while Firdaus Abdullah, the Malaysian delegation leader, joined the chorus, calling for the screening of foreign influences on Malay.

Dendy, who initiated a draft bill here at home on the protection of Indonesian in official/formal use, is currently the head of the Language Center at the National Education Ministry.

Looking at the history of Malay, spoken by 250 million people in Southeast Asia, the language has been influenced by several foreign languages, including Arabic, Dutch, English, Chinese and Portuguese.

In Indonesia, Malay transformed into Bahasa Indonesia, which was declared the national language in 1928 to help unite the country's ethnic, racial and religious groups.

Older citizens who experienced Dutch colonialism, including some top government officials during the New Order era, mixed Indonesian with Dutch words. Today, many younger people intermix English terms with their Indonesian. The use of English is seen as a sign of prestige by some, while others resort to English terms because there are no Indonesian equivalents.

Other people use Arabic terms when speaking in public, apparently feeling this makes them appear more religious.

Given this, the call to protect the Malay language from foreign influences is somewhat too late and will in the end likely prove fruitless. Any effort to cleanse Malay of foreign influences would have to include serious language planning, touching on sociolinguistic, anthropological linguistic, historical linguistic and other issues related to language.

Rapid technological developments and globalization have made it easier for individuals or nations to use foreign languages or words in their daily lives. It is thus no exaggeration to say the Malay language, including Bahasa Indonesia, is facing erosion due to the homogenizing effect of globalization.

Worse, Indonesians tend to neglect their own cultures, including language, because they are confused by the idea of modernization.

With the government failing to take any action to return Bahasa Indonesia to its standing as a subject that figures prominently in the evaluation of students, Indonesian has become an increasingly unpopular school subject. In the minds of many students and their parents, mathematics and other sciences are much more important subjects.

This should have alerted everybody to the difficulty of stopping foreign influences from infiltrating Indonesian. And the promotion of the correct use of Indonesian, through the Language Center's Bulan Bahasa (language month) campaign every October, seems to have done little to check the trend.

Despite concerns by some parties over the influence of foreign languages on Indonesian, the use of English in the local tourist industry seems to be seen as more of an asset than in, let's say, Thailand. English, for example, is a prerequisite in beauty pageants at the provincial and national levels here. In Thailand, as a comparison, a contestant's ability to speak English is not taken into account.

In Singapore, English has helped to unify the Chinese, Malay and Indian ethnic groups. And in Malaysia, English has been in a kind of competition with the Malay language, which is used by the majority Malay. Unlike in Singapore and Malaysia, however, in Indonesia the English language does not play such a crucial role, despite its recent popularity among people who see the use of English terms as a sign of prestige and the mushrooming of English titles for local businesses and TV dramas.

To protect the Indonesian language, globalization demands nothing short of a smart and prompt response, meaning Bahasa Indonesia must become a modern language with a richer vocabulary and a broader range of terminology, particularly for technology-related fields.

One example of the efforts being made to enrich and preserve Indonesian is the cooperation between the National Education Ministry's Language Center and Microsoft, which has resulted in the conversion of some English terms into Bahasa Indonesia.

However, Anton Mulyono, an Indonesian language expert, says there is no reason to worry about individuals or nations using two or more languages, as long as the mother tongue is not neglected.

In other words, Anton might suggest that we think ideally but act practically.
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