Linguist shines light on endangered Indonesian languages

Abby Cohn

Indonesia, with 700 spoken languages, is one of the most multilingual nations in the world. And while those languages with only a few hundred native speakers are clearly endangered, others, like Javanese, are spoken by tens of millions.

But according to Cornell linguist Abby Cohn, even Javanese should be considered at risk of extinction. “If the next generation isn’t learning a language, there will be a precipitous drop in the number of speakers,” she said. And such a lack of intergenerational transmission is precisely what Cohn is seeing in her research results.

Indonesian, a dialect of Malay, was named the national language at Indonesia’s founding to promote unity across the vast archipelago. Cohn notes that Indonesian is often cited as one of the great success stories of language policy and planning. But the very success of Indonesian threatens the other 699 languages in the island nation.

To her surprise, Cohn found the same three-generational language shift happening in Indonesia characterizes immigrant populations in the U.S. “They’re building a new national culture with Indonesian, and it’s pushing out the local languages, similar to the pattern we see with immigrant communities in the U.S.,” she explained.

Indonesian is perceived as giving speakers better educational access, Cohn said, and it’s considered a more democratic language, without the social stratification of languages like Javanese. “And there’s a fallacy – like we have in this country as well – that bilingualism is bad,” Cohn added. In fact, when Cohn talked with Indonesians about the benefits of bilingualism, many thought it more important to teach their children English, not their local language.

While Cohn emphasizes that it’s not the place of linguists to tell people they have to keep speaking their language, she does think Indonesians should be conscious of the effects their personal choices have.

“The reaction to my speaking about the issue was, ‘Here’s this outsider who cares more about our language than we do,’” she said. “It’s had an impact on the urgency of the issue and the prestige of local languages. Even Indonesian linguists who work on endangered languages came up to me and said, ‘Wow, I never thought about this. I didn’t teach my child Javanese either!’”

The reality, Cohn said, is that in 50-100 years the number of languages spoken in Indonesia will drop from 700 to perhaps 50.

But while 90 percent of Indonesia’s languages have fewer than 100,000 speakers and are thus considered at risk of extinction, Cohn says the number of speakers is only one factor, and not the cause of a language’s death. She’s found only a weak correlation between population size and the vitality of languages in Indonesia.

To better identify the underlying causes of language extinction, Cohn and colleagues developed a detailed questionnaire that offers a quantitative approach to examining language use and language attitudes.

“It’s exciting because no one’s really done this before. There hasn’t been an instrument to compare these hundreds of languages and determine which factors really matter in language survival. We’ll be able to correlate data with actual language use patterns,” Cohn said.

Maya Ravindranath ’98, assistant professor of linguistics at the University of New Hampshire, is collaborating on the questionnaire project, for which Cohn conducted preliminary field research while a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 2012.

Linda B. Glaser is staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences. 

Media Contact

Syl Kacapyr