Multilingual Diversity in a Changing Indonesia

Indonesia has undergone rapid political, social, and cultural change since 1998. Members of this international research network are interested in understanding how language figures in these changes and how understandings of these changes can inform global discussions on language, social relations, and change more generally.

Indonesia is a relatively new nation, only obtaining independence from the Netherlands in 1949. It is an archipelago nation made up of over 17000 islands. In addition to being one of the world’s most populous nations, Indonesia is also well-known for being one of the most linguistically, culturally, and religiously diverse regions in the world.

Much of Indonesia's nation-building efforts have revolved around building unity, and managing diversity among a rapidly growing and mobile population. While highly centralised schooling, media, and language planning helped achieve unity, especially from the late 1960s onwards, the commodification of language in the media since the early 1990s, regime change in 1998, and large scale decentralisation which began in 2001 all contributed to increasingly complex social relations all of which were mediated by language.

For example, the political and fiscal decentralisation of 2001 led to: a democratization of the political process on a scale not seen before; rapid territorial fragmentation; inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts; and increases in the value of ethnicity. Together with continued rapid urbanisation that increased inter-ethnic contact, the value of regional languages and regional varieties of Malay vis-à-vis Indonesian are in constant flux, from the national scale right through to daily interpersonal encounters.

The members of this research network investigate the role of language in these changes. In so doing, we contribute to global scholarship that seeks to understand language, social relations, and change by engaging with scholars from other global research networks who are interested in similar questions in different settings.

In June 2015 we convened our first meeting, the Margins, Hubs, and Peripheries in a Decentralizing Indonesia symposium at the Sociolinguistics of Globalization conference in Hong Kong. Working papers from this symposium were published with Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies as special issue number 162 in 2016. Three of us (Goebel, Manns, and Cole) are in the process of editing a book on this symposium. The book, tentatively entitled Contact talk: The discursive organization of contact and boundaries in Indonesia, engages with global linguistic anthropological theory by offering a number of new concepts around scale and language contact.

Symposium participants: Joel Kuipers, Simon Musgrave, Izak Morin, Michael Ewing, Howie Manns, Zane Goebel, Adam Harr, Meinarni Susilowati, Yacinta Kurniasih, Dwi Novi Djenar, Aurora Donzelli, Debbie Cole, Asif Agha.

Much of our early activity was coordinated while Goebel was still located at La Trobe University. In May 2016 our network was able to bring the highly regarded scholar of language and religious performance, Professor Joel Kuipers (George Washington University) to La Trobe. In early May he presented on a large National Science Foundation funded project that involved close collaboration with Indonesian scholars. Professor Kuipers provided an insight into this project, Religion, Language and Piety, via his public lecture Religion, language and piety: the case of Arabic Names. In addition to the abstract below you can listen to his whole lecture by following this link.

Abstract: Most approaches to the understanding of the resurgence of Islamic piety attempt to either interrogate its underlying cultural logic, or carry out in broad empirical transregional surveys and self-reports. Both approaches have limitations. In his lecture Professor Kuipers investigates the striking rise of the use of Arabic names in the island of Java as a way of ethnographically bridging the gap between comparative surveys and in-depth interviews. The rise of Arabic names in Java does not signal the "collapse" of the abangan syncretic traditions, so much as a repositioning of the way in which they are expressed. Exuberantly hybridized names are increasingly popular, recalling the synthetic and creative traditions of sacred speech and amalgamated identity for which Indonesia is justly renowned.

Symposium participants: Mikihiro Moriyama, Asrun Lio, Sally Bowman, Izak Morin, Yacinta Kurniasih, Rafadi Hakim, Asif Agha, Lauren Zentz, Zane Goebel, Michael Ewing, Joel Kuipers, Howie Manns, Novi Djenar, Ben Arps.

Our second meeting was convened between 17-20 July 2016 at La Trobe University with the help of two generous grants, one from the Linguistics Disciplinary Program (Grant number: 2016-1-DRP-04) and one from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences (Grant number: #2015-1-STF-0005). During this four-day symposium we intensively discussed and debated the commonly used anthropological folk notion of rapport and its relationship to language. Abstracts of the papers can be found on the Program and abstracts page. We are currently completing two contracted edited books of the papers from this meeting.

The first, Reimagining Rapport: Understanding the Discursive Construction of Fieldwork Relationships (Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics, Oxford University Press), explores how the idea of rapport has been shaped by historical forces and actors within sociocultural anthropology and how we might think about the interactional processes and identities that are encompassed in this ninety year old anthropological folk term. A draft introduction to this book can be found here. The second book, entitled Rapport and the Discursive Co-construction of Social Relations in Fieldwork Settings (Language and Social Life series, Mouton De Gruyter) seeks to challenge the myth of rapport by offering an interactional view of the emergence of different subject positions as both fieldworker and informant co-construct social relations and shared social worlds in the field. A draft introduction to this book can be found here

Before relocating to The University of Queensland, we were able to bring Professor J Joseph Errington (Yale University) to La Trobe in March 2017 to present on his current research in Eastern Indonesia. This work emerged through collaboration on an international research project Middle Indonesia, which was based in the Netherlands. His talk entitled, A valuable paradox: Indonesian as an un-native language, attracted thirty scholars from around Melbourne. Below is the abstract:

Abstract: In 2008 Goenawan Moehamad celebrated the “very valuable paradox” (paradoks yang sangat berharga) of a language that has come over three generations to be known by almost all of Indonesia’s 250 million people.  Drawing on sociolinguistic research, I explore different versions of this paradox as it has developed in two towns, Kupang and Pontianak. To compare these very different urban scenes it helps first to consider more generally Indonesian’s uniqueness among the world’s national languages. This provides a way to understand how its diversity of forms and values can be traced to its enabling absence of native speakers.




Associate Professor Zane Goebel
Indonesian & Applied Linguistics, School of Languages and Cultures