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Semarang Keynote

Semarang, November 7, 2018

Keynote: Celebrating Language Month with Renewing the Youth Pledge

Lian Gouw

Universitas PGRI

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

I’m grateful to the administration of PGRI University, in particular to Pak Prasetyo and Ibu Maria Yosephin, for this opportunity to discuss a concern that is foremost in my mind and directs my everyday conduct. This concern is the importance of protecting the sanctity of our Indonesian language from undue infiltration from the English language. Today’s lifestyle tends to gear toward globalization, rather than preserving our own culture and language.

I’m aware of the resistance from academia, government officials, and everyday people toward my effort. However, it works better for me to follow my heart than to win a popularity contest.

After several encounters with various individuals, including close friends who are professionals in the language field, I decided to figure out why I’m so bothered by what I see as an abuse of our language. I came up with the following.

Perhaps it all starts with my own language experience. Life has made me keenly aware of the all-important role language plays in our everyday lives. Language is the most important tool in communication. To stifle someone is similar to destroying his soul. From ancient times till today, language is the most powerful secret weapon to overthrow the enemy.

Examples include:

– God brought the Babylonians to their senses by destroying their language

– The Dutch forced their language upon us during colonization

– People of occupied countries during WWII were forced to learn German and Japanese    At the onset of our independence, President Soekarno declared Bahasa Indonesia the official language of the Republic of Indonesia. With his wisdom, President Soekarno realized that we, a nation spread across more than 17,500 islands, between Sabang and Merauke, needed a strong, unifying allegiance to help us hold our own against other large countries. He led us Indonesians to unity with our coat of arms that reads Bhinneka Tunggal Ika — Unity in Diversity — urging us to unite under one flag and communicate in one official language, Bahasa Indonesia.

I’m in total agreement that every language needs constant development to serve a growing nation. This growth, in turn, introduces new words and terminology. And here, then, lies the task of our linguists to come up with words and phrases that still represent our language not only in cadence and sound, but also in the way we think. This takes expertise and a lot more than merely sandwiching an English word between an Indonesian prefix and/or suffix.

In my opinion, our lackadaisical attitude toward our native language is rooted in our reluctance to put out the effort and our desire to appear as someone with a Western education.

I wonder why neither the sound nor the cadence of words — such as memfokus, berkommunikasi, ngeprin, webset — don’t bother anyone and why their use is preferred over the traditional Indonesian memusatkan perhatian, berhubungan, mencetak, situs.

Our linguists are not only tasked to search for a word that fits in our language, but as Indonesian citizens, also to be responsible gatekeepers of the Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia, the official Indonesian Dictionary.

From conversations about this topic with several linguists, language teachers, students, government officials, and workers in the private sector, I came away with the following troubling observations.

I seldom met anyone who shared my concerns. For the most part, people just shrugged their shoulders and said, “Oh, well, that’s the way it is. We can’t really do anything about it.”

This solicited my emphatic reaction: “Of course there is! We can do a lot! Start by not joining those who destroy our language. Second, counter their actions by setting an example and refusing to participate in their inappropriate behavior.”

The following responses really saddened and alarmed me.

“Dengan use kata-kata itu, kita kan menunjukkan kita tidak ketinggalan zaman. Kita hidup now, bersifat global…, berpendidikan….” (Translation: “By using those words, we show we are progressive. Using those words, we prove to be a part of today; we show ourselves as being global and well-educated.)

Another student said, “Me-use word bahasa asing kan cool, Bu!” (Translation: “Don’t you think that using foreign words is cool?”)

Good God, help me. If this student — a product of his parents’ and teachers’ upbringing — is supposed to be a pillar of our future society, what kind of a future can our country and nation hope for? The situation dismays and concerns me, especially because, while pondering this issue, I cannot ignore the sacrifices of our forebearers who bequeathed us our independence and, as a result, granted us the right to freely use our own language.

Born in an independent country, our youth take for granted the fruits of their ancestors’ toil for freedom. Able to freely enjoy the amenities of independence, perhaps it is difficult for our youth to be mindful of the past and be grateful for their living conditions.

This, then, is my lament regarding the use (and miss-use) that our language receives in dialogue and on the page, in formal as well as in mundane matters.

It is easy to launch complaints or fret about things one doesn’t agree with. Coming up with a solution to the problem is much more difficult. To me, complaining without offering a solution is useless, and I usually respond to complaints by asking the complainer, “So what do you plan to do about it?”

I was very happy, therefore, when I came up with several possible solutions to the Indonesian language infiltration dilemma.

Operating from the students’ reactions during our conversation and the fact that students play a big role in the future of our country, I asked myself, Why does this young person think like that? What makes them think that using foreign words in their conversation will depict them as educated or debonair? I came up with the following answers.

  1. It is Indonesian public opinion that the use of bastardized Indonesian words is a sign of being educated and alludes to the fact the person has a Western education or, at the least, fraternizes with foreigners.
  2. There is no love or pride in regards to our own language.
  3. Despite the fact that Indonesia has been independent for 73 years, we still suffer the consequences of colonialization, which erased our self-worth and pride. Colonialism instilled in us that we are worthless and taught us that unless we adapted the colonialists’ lifestyle, we would not be treated equal.

Based on the above, I conclude that our language is in a precarious situation.

  1. As a nation, we still suffer from a lack of self-worth
  2. Indolence is a characteristic of people who live in the tropics

With this knowledge, what can we do to remedy the problem?

I feel that it is vital to reignite the fire of nationalism that lit our revolution — the blazing fire that provided Indonesian people with hope, self-confidence, and the courage to break free from the tyranny of colonialism. It is time to rekindle the fire that President Soekarno started during those days of revolution.

By rebuilding nationalism and national pride, the desire to protect and serve our country will be awakened; and self-respect will automatically be fostered. The school system, starting with kindergarten and ending in higher education institutions, is an excellent growing ground for the seed of nationalism. Geography, history, cultural, and language studies are all avenues to awaken nationalism.

I still remember, when growing up, how careful we were to only speak proper Dutch. Mispronunciation or inappropriate word or phrase usage resulted in insults. We therefore did everything we could to meet the Dutch standard.

It therefore puzzles me that we now don’t seem to apply this notion to our own language. I am saddened by the realization that not only youngsters are guilty of violating our language, but adults are also very much guilty of committing the same crime.

Proper language should be used at all times. During colonial times, it would have been impossible for anyone to obtain a desk job without proper language skills. In the publishing world, a mastery of language is obviously a must.

Now, what is a “mastery of language”?

As a publisher, I consider someone to master a language if they, aside from being able to speak and write in that language, also has a full understanding of what is written in that language. Some who master a language, other than understanding what is said and written in that language, also can think, feel, see, hear, and touch in that language. In other words, one lives the language one masters.

In his poem “Immigrant Blues,” Li-Young Lee, an American poet born in Jakarta, says about learning a foreign language, “Practice until you feel the language inside you…”

He doesn’t say, “until you can understand, speak, or write it.” No, he says, “Until you feel.” Only after one has acquired this relationship with a language, does one master it.

Before we, as a nation, start chasing dreams of becoming citizens of the world —especially in the areas of literature — and set out to explore and embrace other foreign cultures and languages, let us pause a moment to focus on how much we know about our own culture, and what kind of mastery we have of our own language.

With the great probability that Indonesian parents use English-corrupted Indonesian language in their communication with their children, it seems that today, teaching our youth to master our mother tongue has become problematic. This problem becomes even bigger when parents send their children to an international school where, of course, English is used as the working language, and Indonesian is most likely not in the curriculum.

Because I subscribe to the English saying, You need to walk the talk, meaning, you need to act and do as you say, I execute what I believe might keep our language from vanishing and remaining independent. I take great care in my everyday Indonesian communications, and particularly those as a publisher, to use proper Indonesian language.

My actions are motivated by a fierce sense of nationalism and a deep love for the country of my birth.

I’d like to end my talk by, together, renewing the vow of the Indonesian youth, 90 years ago. On October 28, 1928, they pledged, Kami Poetra dan Poetri Indonesia, mendjoenjoeng bahasa persatoean, Bahasa Indonesia.” — We, the sons and daughters of Indonesia, respect the language of unity, Indonesian.


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