While not many Indonesian linguists are piqued by the wealth of the country’s indigenous languages, one of the world’s distinguished linguists, David Gill, has determined to devote his career life to passionately researching the world’s language minorities, including those found in Indonesia.
A country which ranks second in terms of the number of local languages (the first being Papua New Guinea), Indonesia remains the best place for Gill to carry out research on minority languages, which often escape local linguists’ attention.
Visiting the country for the first time as a tourist in 1980, the English-born linguist was initially intrigued by the uniqueness of local languages in Sumatra, such as Melayu, Minangkabau and Mentawai.
Gill first knew about these languages from his professor, who taught Austronesia languages at the University of California at Los Angeles, US, where he earned his Ph.D. in linguistics with specializations in linguistic theory (primarily syntax and semantics) and linguistic typology.
“I was informed by my professor about the richness of Indonesia’s local language varieties and as I was completing my Ph.D. thesis at that time, my visit to Indonesia was really a coincidence. I could collect a lot of data during my sojourns in several provinces in the country”, Gill recalled.
Soon after completing his doctorate thesis in 1982, Gill worked as a researcher in the Philippines and Vietnam where he spent years documenting languages from Austronesia roots. He also gave lectures on Austronesia languages in different universities in Singapore and Malaysia.
In 1998, Gill was offered a job as a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. One year later, he made a breakthrough by initiating the establishment of Max Planck’ Jakarta-based language documentation center — a field station whose purpose is to document Indonesia’s indigenous languages in the form of computerized data bases. The center has now been employing some 20 workers from
Indonesia and elsewhere.
Working with other Max Planck affiliated linguists, Gill managed to document endangered Dayak language varieties in East Kalimantan in a book titled Mencalèny & Usung Bayung Marang: A Collection of Kenyah Stories in the Òma Lóngh and Lebu Kulit Languages.
For the worlds’ linguists, Gill was best known for the World Atlas of Language Structures (which he co-edited) published by Oxford.
“We as linguists need to inform language users that unless language is documented and preserved, it will sooner or later become extinct,” he said during an interview with The Jakarta Post in his office.
He further said that documentation is only an initial step to prevent language disappearance. “Documentation, though important, shouldn’t be the sole solution to preserve languages from extinction,” the Max Planck based linguist said.
“The most effective way of safeguarding local languages from disappearance is through using it in everyday interaction in all domains. The more a language is spoken in a daily communication, the more chances it will have for survival,” he explained.
The major obstacle, Gill observed, in encouraging language users to use their own native languages spring from an ideological factor. “Most Indonesians are engrossed in the idea of ‘unity’, but ignore the significance of ‘diversity’.” This, he goes on to say, brings about a sense of excessive pride in using the Indonesian language as the national language both at home and in school.
Gill says in the eyes of many parents and the public in general, using local languages is less prestigious than using Indonesian and a much-spoken international language such as English. Yet, he refutes this widely-held perception, arguing that it is a sheer fallacy.
“In my view, being bilingual and bicultural is much better because it can raise cross-cultural sensitivity and also accord a language user a superior status,” the American-trained linguist added.
Estimating some 50 percent – 80 percent of local language loss the country suffers due to the above reasons, Gill also highlights that parents’ indifference to the importance of local language perseverance plays a significant role in contributing to language endangerment.
“Take the instance of the Sentani language in Papua, whose speakers are only those who are beyond the age of 30. This will become an indication that this language will soon vanish unless the older generations are willing to use it as a means of interaction with the younger generations” Gill said.
However, Gill sees that the looming threat of the loss of minority languages does not take place in Indonesia only. In other countries where local languages also abound, the likelihood of language endangerment is very real. Thus, it is a universal phenomenon.
“Another case in point is France. Despite the abundance of local languages in this country, a sense of pride in using the national language promoted by the French government relegates the use of local languages among the people there.”
In the Indonesian context, despite the government’s lackadaisical attitude to the preservation of local languages, Gill is upbeat that using these languages as a tool for interaction at home between parents and children can prevent language disappearance in the future.