Can a Law Save the Javanese Language?
Authorities on the island of Java have mandated speaking a little of the local language every week. Will this keep the dreaded English invasion at bay, and does the local tongue even need the protection?
In late May, the province of Central Java, Indonesia, passed a law requiring residents to use the regional tongue, Javanese, once a week. The law is symbolic and probably unenforceable—“I swear officer, I yelled at my mother in Javanese this very morning”—but addresses what a local councillor called “a tendency for many Javanese people not to use Javanese in their daily lives.” Why is the government panicking over how its people talk, and why should we care?
If Javanese is dying, it’s hard to detect by the usual means—counting how many people use it. The language’s 75 million speakers, according to a UCLA project that tracks such things, outnumber those who converse in Polish or Korean. And in a country with deep Internet penetration, Javanese also has a vast digital footprint. Just ask SpongeBob.
In interviews with local press, the councillor advocating the bill argues that the threat to Javanese isn’t the nation’s more widely spoken tongue, Indonesian, but English.