Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world and the second most linguistically diverse country with 650 vernacular languages. Despite its linguistic diversity, Bahasa Indonesia has been used as the only national language since 1945. The language choice was made not on the basis of convenience in communication but for political purposes: to fuel the nationalistic movement in the post-colonial era and to avoid ethnic disintegration.
Before the arbitrary unity created by a colonial power, Indonesia never existed as a united nation and did not share a common language. At the end of the colonial period, however, the need for national language was posed by administrators. Bahasa Indonesia was chosen as the national language although it was spoken less than 5% of the entire population. Javanese, the language of the largest ethnic group which made up 48% of Indonesia’s population and which has a rich literacy tradition, was not chosen because administrators believed that it could cause a “high level of resentment for their perceived dominance in the political and economic domains” (Wright 2004, p.85). In addition, it originated from Malay which was favored by the nationalistic groups in the early 1900s. These perceived legitimate reasons to advocate Bahasa Indonesia as the language for the new nationalistic government.
Bahasa Indonesia has been a medium of instruction after the first three years of primary school, and is taught as a compulsory subject at all levels of education from primary to tertiary levels. As a result of the remarkable national language policy lasted for decades, the number of speakers of Bahasa Indonesia increased rapidly to 61% in the 1980 census, and 83% in the 1990 census. The critiques of national language policy, however, pointed out that Indonesian students’ reading ability is rather low, ranking 58th out of 66th countries tested. The weak support for mother-tongue education can be one of the major reasons for low literacy. A recent survey showed that over 80% of the Indonesian population still speak languages other than Bahasa Indonesia as their mother tongues. For students who does not speak the national language as L1, literacy development in L1 should be guaranteed to build strong L2 literacy. The case of Indonesia tells us that when imposing a national language, how to accommodate the ethnical and linguistic diversity into policy and curriculum is just as an important issue as the national language policy itself.
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