The Renaissance of Basa Bali

When the Indonesian government adopted the position that the Balinese language should be phased out of the local education curriculum as of June 2013, it may not have fully appreciated the extent to which individuals and organizations are taking steps to ensure the preservation of Basa Bali (Bali language).

To start off with, there’s Google: The mother of all search engines has just added Balinese to its Indonesian homepage. If that’s not enough evidence to quell skepticism about the viability of Basa Bali, then a slew of other projects supporting its existence should prove sufficient.

A quick search online will land you on the homepage of a U.S.-based non-profit organization called Basa Bali (www.basabali.org). Basabali.org is the result of a collaborative effort among Balinese linguists, anthropologists and language software specialists, to develop the first interactive materials for spoken Balinese.

The Executive Director of Basabali.org, Alissa Stern, raised enough funds through a 2011 Kickstarter campaign to pay Balinese linguists, videographers, animators, and anthropologists for their input. The project, titled Balinese: A Language at a Crossroads with Endangered Script, brings to fruition a plan to create a series of filmed dialogues online – shot on location in Bali – teaching conversation skills through scenarios from daily life.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet, the folks at Wikipedia recently launched an initiative titled Wikivoyage, which includes a rudimentary Balinese phrasebook. Even though Balinese contains three registers (similar to dialects, varying in use depending on factors such as caste) the phrasebook, geared towards visitors to Bali, will only cover the lowest register, basa ketah, the language spoken by the vast majority of Balinese. http://en.wikivoyage.org/wiki/Balinese_phrasebook

According to 2011 data from the Bali Cultural Agency, the number of people still using the Balinese language in their daily lives “does not exceed 1 million” – one quarter of the current estimated population on the island. Even so, daily use refers to spoken Balinese, primarily at home or in the context of community meetings and religious ceremonies; the written form has declined even more. Nevertheless, the language endures through the dissemination of media such as pop music, Bali Orti (language news) and language lessons at local schools. But even in schools today, students learn a Latin alphabet known as Tulisan Bali rather than the original script.

Due to the still-booming influx of tourists, foreign media publications and the internet, the erosion of the Balinese language was, in some circles, deemed an eventual outcome. With the growing influence of the Indonesian language, more Javanese laborers in the island, and a preponderance of English in touristy areas, the Balinese themselves have been inclined to study and use other languages.

Still, the momentum is growing. And not only among locals. Interest in studying Balinese is on the upswing even among tourists and expats.

Cinta Bahasa, an Indonesian language school in Bali, began offering Basa Bali classes in March. The first course filled up with foreigners seeking to delve more deeply into their understanding of Balinese Hinduism, Banjar traditional government, Subak rice field and water management. The programme is also meant to provide a linguistic primer to those traveling or volunteering in more remote areas around the island.

According to Cinta Bahasa co-founder Stephen deMeulenaere, the Balinese language is “inextricably woven into the fabric of Balinese society.” On this point, even Balinese linguists and academics agree.

deMeulenaere brushes off what he believes are ungrounded concerns about the possible extinction of the Balinese language: “We disagree with alarmist statements. Perhaps the high level is not being used as much as it one was, but that does not mean it’s dying out.”

Let’s hope that the Balinese language is here to stay, and that rumors of its impending demise are grossly exaggerated.

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