The Newsletter 77 Summer 2017

The nexus between language diversity and language education

Michael EwingDwi Noverini Djenar

Indonesian is taught in many primary and secondary schools across Australia, as well as most major universities in the country. Strengthening the nexus between research and teaching is important for keeping teaching methodologies and content up-to-date and engaging students. We present some findings from our research project on the language of young Indonesians, and explore some of the ways these findings can inform language learning and teaching.

Indonesia is a highly multilingual society and standard Indonesian (itself a variety of Malay), as promoted by the national language board and educational practices, exists in a complex sociolinguistic ecology. Indonesia’s language diversity includes colloquial varieties of Indonesian, other varieties of Malay and hundreds of regional languages found across the archipelago. In the past the relationship between the different languages has been described in terms of diglossia, in which each language has a specific function within a particular domain. Standard Indonesian is considered the language of government and education, while regional languages or colloquial varieties of Indonesian are for family and personal relationships. In fiction, this divide can be seen when authors present narration in standard Indonesian, but allow colloquial forms to appear in dialogue. Examining recent genres of fiction aimed at young audiences, we found that this simplistic division is no longer operative.

Beginning in the 1990s, with democratisation and press freedom, there has been a dramatic increase in both numbers and kinds of Indonesian publications, including those aimed at a youth demographic. During the same period a newly recognised trendy, urban youth identity and its associated form of language called bahasa gaul [the language of sociability] became popular. These and the dramatic popularity of social media in Indonesia in recent years, correlate with a weakening of the divide that has officially separated standard and colloquial language, creating a more porous boundary between the two.[1] In an example from Fairish, a teen-lit novel written by Esti Kinasih,[2] the narrator describes how Irish, the protagonist, is surprised one morning to find she was not the first to arrive early at school.

           Betapa kagetnya Irish begitu tiba di sekolah, karena dia pikir dia bakalan jadi orang pertama yang menginjakkan kakinya di sekolah. Tapi ternyata, boro-boro!

“Irish was so surprised when she arrived at school because she thought she was the first one to enter the school ground. But she was totally wrong!”

The narration begins with the standard style then moves to a more colloquial style before ending with the particularly colloquial expression boro-boro [let alone] (the translation above is adjusted for idiomaticity). In older teen fiction, this mixing of style is rare. Similar shifts occur in comics, on social media and in conversation. Our next example is from a recording of a group of university students sitting in a food court. They have been discussing economics in fairly standard Indonesian when Rini changes the topic and says that she hasn’t yet decided what to order.

            Rini (while laughing): Saya belum menemukan apa yang mau saya makan.

            “I have not yet discovered what it is that I want to eat.”

            Ini=. ... Hah. Itu teh cuma esnya aja?

            “Here. Hah. That’s just with ice?”

            Ratih: Minum aja Teh. ... Tapi nggak tau mau minum apa.

            “(I) am just going to have a drink. But (I) don’t know what (I) want.”

Rini begins in the standard style, indicated by saya for first person reference, the fully inflected verb menemukan [to discover] and a complex sentence structure. She also laughs, indicating the humorous incongruity between what she said and how she said it. Rini and Ratih then switch to a more colloquial style indicated by informal aja [just] and nggak [not], the use of ellipses and the incorporation of a Sundanese discourse marker teh and (coincidently homophonous) vocative Teh [older sister].[3] While the forces of conservative educators and government bureaucrats continue to promote standard Indonesian, the mixing of styles, registers and languages is in fact the lived reality of all Indonesian speakers, and youth enthusiastically celebrate this linguistic plurality.

What does this mean for language education? We feel that the love of language variation expressed by young Indonesians is something that needs to be shared with learners. We identify four ways that our research can inform the teaching of Indonesian. First, diversity is the reality. As educators, we must recognise and embrace linguistic and cultural diversity and can no longer teach only the standard language in isolation, because this would provide an unrealistic model for students. Second, narrative (in its myriad forms) is an extremely useful entry into the complex cultural and linguistic diversity found in Indonesia and so is valuable in language teaching. Third, for learners the key is flexibility. We cannot possibly teach all the different kinds of language and cultural variation students will encounter in Indonesia, but we can teach them skills, tools and strategies to deal with and embrace diversity. Finally, as educators we have to rise to this challenge. Rather than falling back on easy solutions that rely on a simplistic reading of register and language variation, we need to embrace difference, hybridity, and complexity.

Michael Ewing, Asia Institute, The University of Melbourne (

Dwi Noverini Djenar, School of Languages and Cultures, The University of Sydney (



[1] Djenar, D.N. & M.C. Ewing. 2015. ‘Language varieties and youthful involvement in Indonesian fiction’, Language and Literature 4(2):108-128.

[2] Djenar, D.N. 2015. ‘Style and authorial identity in Indonesian teen literature: a ‘sociostylistic’ approach’, in D.N. Djenar et al. (eds.) Language and Identity Across Modes of Communication. Berlin: De Gruyter, pp.225-248.

[3] Ewing, M.C. 2016. ‘Localising person reference among Indonesian Youth’, in Goebel, Z. et al. (eds.) Margins, hubs, and peripheries in a decentralizing Indonesia. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, Special Issue 162, pp.26-41.