Friday, June 29, 2012

Can a Law Save a Language?

Authorities on the island of Java have mandated speaking a little of the local language every week. Will this keep the dreaded English invasion at bay, and does the local tongue even need the protection?

In late May, the province of Central Java, Indonesia, passed a law requiring residents to use the regional tongue, Javanese, once a week. The law is symbolic and probably unenforceable—“I swear officer, I yelled at my mother in Javanese this very morning”—but addresses what a local councillor called “a tendency for many Javanese people not to use Javanese in their daily lives.” Why is the government panicking over how its people talk, and why should we care?

If Javanese is dying, it’s hard to detect by the usual means—counting how many people use it. The language’s 75 million speakers, according to a UCLA project that tracks such things, outnumber those who converse in Polish or Korean. And in a country with deep Internet penetration, Javanese also has a vast digital footprint. Just ask SpongeBob.

In interviews with local press, the councillor advocating the bill argues that the threat to Javanese isn’t the nation’s more widely spoken tongue, Indonesian, but English. Useful for modern tasks like finding office work in nearby Australia, reading premed texts and The Hunger Games in their original versions, or collecting foreign updates on the Jakarta Lady Gaga controversy, English is the language of the future to young Javanese. Javanese feels like the past: the language grandma uses to write recipes your Facebook friends abroad would find iffy. So claim the law’s advocates.

Are they right? Regions elsewhere, notably Quebec in Canada and Catalonia in Spain, have been debating regional language rights for decades. And some nominally English-speaking nations, like Ireland and New Zealand, have legal requirements dating to their founding to promote indigenous tongues, Gaelic and Maori respectively. What’s far less studied, though, and what the Javanese experiment could show, is whether a region like Central Java can successfully legislate its language’s resistance to globalization.

And what happens when the issue arrives in a place with even harder linguistic politics—like America. Pass a law requiring Spanish Saturdays in Salinas, California (where three out of four residents are of Latino heritage) or Vietnamese Wednesday in Westminster (an LA suburb where 40 percent of residents are Vietnamese) and we’ll see you at the Supreme Court in a couple of years.

Despite its own speakers treating it as fragile, Javanese does not show up on UNESCO’s list of endangered languages. One hundred and forty-six other languages from Indonesia, however, do appear on that list. Only two are on Java despite it being the most populous island in the Indonesian archipelago. The rest hail from small communities on lesser-populated islands, and face problems from shrinking populations, not encroaching media. So where’s the law requiring people to speak Budong-Budong?

Herman, Marc. 2012. "Can a Law Save a Language?". Pacific Standard. Posted: June 11, 2012. Available online:

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