Policy makers in ASEAN have not addressed the complex relationship between indigenous, local, national and foreign languages in the region, resulting in inconsistent and weak language policies that threaten linguistic and cultural diversity.
By Billy Nathan Setiawan
ASEAN encompasses hundreds of different ethnic groups speaking thousands of different languages across the region. In Indonesia alone, there are more than 700 living languages. The Philippines has more than 100 spoken languages.
Despite this exceptional diversity, several researchers of language policy in ASEAN, such as Andy Kirkpatrick, note that there is little discussion of language education policy in the region. This has led to a mix of language policies across member states and threats to linguistic and cultural diversity in the region.
Indigenous and local languages face major challenges in Southeast Asia
ASEAN is a diverse linguistic environment, with even the least linguistically diverse country in the region, Cambodia, speaking 23 local languages in addition to the national language. There may be more than 1,000 indigenous languages spoken across ASEAN.
But indigenous languages are not always included in Southeast Asian education systems. In Indonesia, local languages have been in and out of the education system while Bahasa Indonesia, the national language, has long been compulsory from primary school to senior high and also in most higher education institutions.
Michelle Kohler, a researcher on language policy in Indonesia from the University of South Australia, reported that most local Indonesian languages that are taught in schools have a large community of speakers across provinces, while local languages with smaller communities remain absent from the education systems.
Studies suggest that in Vietnam, schools impose Vietnamese as the language of instruction from an early age, yet some researchers have found that this contributed to higher dropout rates among ethnic minority students. This policy neglects indigenous languages and often results in worse outcomes, especially for students whose first language is not Vietnamese. Education systems that do not properly integrate local or indigenous languages—or even discourage them—threaten the region’s linguistic and cultural diversity.
Furthermore, the increasing demand for English has major implications for multilingualism in ASEAN. English is the ‘working language’ of ASEAN and is perceived as the language of modernisation and internationalisation. English proficiency may mean access to a more sophisticated job market and other opportunities.
With this in mind, some Southeast Asian schools implement bilingual education in English and a national language, further neglecting the existence of local languages. But this bilingual education policy has been found ineffective because many students who speak local languages as their mother tongue struggle to understand learning materials in languages they have not mastered yet. This has forced some ASEAN countries to frequently change their language education policies over the past decade.
Unfortunately, Southeast Asian leaders have not thought through the impacts of these complex relationships between indigenous, national and foreign languages. Language is a statement of culture and language an expression of identity.
When governments or communities don’t systematically promote the use of indigenous languages, users of these languages could lose a medium to express their identity and culture. The motto of ASEAN is “One Vision, One Identity, One Community,” but this sparks the question: what kind of identity does ASEAN aim for? A community that embraces its rich diversity or a community that slowly moves towards homogeneity?
The European Union offers an example on language policy
The European Union offers an example of a supranational organisation that realises multilingualism and multiculturality in its language policy. The EU considers the national languages of most member states to be official EU languages. As of February 2020, the EU has 24 official languages.
According to the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, EU citizens have the right to use any of the 24 official languages when contacting EU institutions and the EU institutions are obliged to reply in the same language. The EU acknowledges languages as a fundamental part of European identity and the most unequivocal expression of the culture of the people. Maintaining the use member countries’ languages is seen as fundamental.
The EU has an ambitious goal to have its citizens speak two languages in addition to their mother tongue to better prepare them for intercultural dialogue. To support this language learning scheme, the EU has helped people to study and work abroad and accommodated more platforms for intercultural discussion and understanding. The EU has also actively adopted and approved resolutions to protect minority languages and maintain this linguistic diversity.
What ASEAN can learn about language policy
The EU has around 60 indigenous languages and proactively acknowledges such diversity as an integral part of its identity. ASEAN, with over 1000 spoken languages, would benefit significantly from such a robust language policy. This policy does not have to be the same or similar to that of the EU.
Lastly, maintaining and clearly regulating linguistic and cultural diversity in ASEAN could strengthen our identity as a community that has long embraced our rich diversity. This diversity has shaped who we are as a region and constructed our past and present. Neglecting—if not sacrificing—language diversity just for the sake of practicality would weaken our core identity.
Strengthening this identity, on the other hand, would help us to stand out in the globalised world and to avoid becoming only followers and consumers of the products of globalisation.