(THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - One question regarding the fate of Indonesian within the impending Asean integration is whether it is possible for the language to become a lingua franca.
With the country now emerging with economic and cultural clout, some feel upbeat that Indonesian is likely to serve as a medium of communication among people from different Asean countries.
While this is a legitimate question, it is important to understand that Indonesian has been spoken as a lingua franca by people from different regions since around the time of the 1928 Youth Pledge. It has been the unifying language of peoples of various ethnic groups.
As time goes by, the notion of lingua franca in the above sense is rather political and tends to have coercive effects.
A call for unity through the slogan "Bahasa Indonesia yang baik dan benar" (proper and correct use of Indonesian) raises an important question: Which version is "proper" and "correct"?
Is the standard version limited to that prescribed in schools?
Unifying all people from different languages, cultures, ethnicities and ideologies by using Indonesian (in line with the country's motto) amounts to sheer denial of linguistic rights, which in turn can destroy linguistic ecologies from which people hail.
To politicise language is tantamount to treating it as a system and an object, and undermines its users and speakers as uncreative beings. It also limits the rich linguistic repertoires inherent in them.
Language propaganda and coercion manifested through education and business systems, for example, could be responsible for the demise of the country's dozens of indigenous languages.
In the context of transregional relations, diaspora communities and digital communication, the long-standing "Unity in Diversity" slogan no longer holds water.
These developments have compelled us to respect the principle of "diversity in diversity" in communication.
The Indonesian language is a language which lacks a unified identity. It is not monolithic, but a creole language originated from a mixture of many languages.
It also continuously comes into contact with other regional and international languages. As such, it is difficult to define what the language is.
If we uphold diversity in diversity in communication, how can people with diverse linguistic codes successfully communicate with each other?
The long-held maxim of unity in diversity in communicating in the national language seems to undermine what sociolinguist Alastair Pennycook calls "resourceful speakers".
Language users bring with them their rich linguistic repertoires and linguistic and non-linguistic strategies to convey messages in contexts of diversity where different linguistics codes mesh in subtle ways.
For example, facial expressions, gestures and body and eye movements as well as images like the emoticons on our gadgets.
Thus, there is no need to fear that communication breakdowns will occur if, for example, a Balinese encounters and converses with a Madurese, as they will employ both linguistic and non-linguistic resources to prevent and solve communicative problems.
They are resourceful speakers.
Rather than urging linguistically diverse speakers to resort to unity in diversity, we need to encourage the principle of diversity in diversity where they engage freely in exchanging information using their communicative resources.
The writer is an associate professor of English at the School of Education and Language, Atma Jaya Catholic University, Jakarta