When We Let Languages Die

Nathania Silahi, YGI Staff Writer

All of us are settling into the new rhythm of the new year – some with clear goals for 2016 already ingrained in the backs of their minds. Over the winter break, I was fortunate enough to fly from Indonesia to explore a handful of countries in central and eastern Europe. The entire experience was amazing, but it also triggered deep self-reflection when the new year rolled along. I’ve always been aware of English linguistic hegemony. However, the issue never escalated to a point where I felt like I needed to do something to counteract these forces of linguistic erosion. In airports and museums, I heard tourists struggle when they couldn’t speak English and I watched as they failed to find brochures published in their native language.

But I also realized how reliant I was on English back at home. On a daily basis, I speak English for almost 100% of the time at school (because I attend an international school) and I communicate to my parents in a 50:50 ratio of Bahasa Indonesia and English at home. This means that I spend more time reading, writing, listening and speaking in English rather than my own mother tongue, even though I don’t live in a predominantly English-speaking country or a country previously colonized by the British. Most of the TV series I follow and music I listen to are also in English. I even think in English. Is it wrong to feel slightly uncomfortable with this level of psychological linguistic ‘colonization’?

My school has a considerable native Indonesian student population, and all of us tend to admit that our formal Indonesian is a bit… patchy. Most of the Indonesians at my school – myself included – have attended international schools in Jakarta our whole lives and we’ve only learnt Bahasa Indonesia by ear from our parents. We didn’t grow up learning the rules of grammar of our mother tongue and we don’t have vocabulary extensive or sophisticated enough to write an academic essay in Indonesian to the standards that we do at school in English. It’s embarrassing – to the point where I even have to use Google translate sometimes and apologise for my simple Indonesian. On top of this, I can only count to ten in Batak Toba – one of Indonesia’s 700 tribal languages that existed before the creation of Bahasa Indonesia to unite the entire archipelago. So, what is that we lose when languages die?

According to UNESCO,  96% of the global population speaks only 4% of all of the recorded languages of the world and at least half of the approximately 7,000 existing languages will be dead or moribund (i.e children will not be able to speak them) by 2100. Languages are living histories of how groups of humans have attempted to make sense of the world around them. Or as UNESCO describes it with more accuracy and profundity,  “languages are humankind’s principle tools for interacting and for expressing ideas, emotions, knowledge, memories and values. Languages are also primary vehicles of cultural expressions and intangible cultural heritage, essential to the identity of individuals and groups. Safeguarding endangered language is thus a crucial task in maintaining cultural diversity worldwide.”

Sometimes, languages die due to reasons outside of our control. A natural disaster could wipe out a small community with a unique language or a disease could eradicate an entire population. Sometimes, certain languages gain more power as a side-effect of political, social and economic factors – like wars (e.g English after WWI and WWII) or the trajectory of globalisation and global economic development (e.g China). However, most of the time, languages die because we let them. And I’m one of those people letting them die if I continue the way I am. If I don’t learn Batak Toba in my lifetime, my children would have zero knowledge of a language their great grandparents would have used everyday. So for anyone who can relate to what I’m talking about, whether you’re another international school student living in another country or a third-generation Asian-American, let’s add one more goal to our 2016 New Year’s Resolutions: to try to master the language of our ancestors. It sounds overly dramatic and cliche, but if we – as children – don’t fulfill our responsibility of carrying on a language, all of the beautiful histories, memories and emotions experienced with that language would die too.

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