restricted access How I Learned Batak: Studying the Angkola Batak Language in 1970s New Order Indonesia
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How I Learned Batak:
Studying the Angkola Batak Language in 1970s New Order Indonesia

How were “local languages” and “local cultures” constituted during the New Order? How was the visiting anthropologist construed during the Soeharto regime? How were anthropology and “culture” itself imagined in New Order times by diverse parties engaged in these profoundly politicized (if veiled) narrative discourses? John Pemberton’s findings about New Order cultural imaginaries set out in his On the Subject of “Java”2 provide macro-level insight and excellent historical grounding for beginning to answer these questions, as Pemberton focuses on constructions of so-called traditions revolving around the royal court of Surakarta. This present essay offers an autobiographical, experiential parallel to Pemberton’s work by setting out my memories of working with a seventy-six-year-old retired schoolteacher who taught me the Angkola Batak language in 1974 as part of my first term of fieldwork in Sipirok, South Tapanuli, North Sumatra. My teacher’s pedagogies and language ideology were shaped by Dutch colonial visions of language and learning; his way of presenting his home language to me as a brilliant, civilizing gift was also animated by his discomfort and skepticism with the New Order government’s negative stereotypes about so-called [End Page 1] minority languages and minority peoples. This experimental memoir of language learning suggests that New Order “control” of places like South Tapanuli was ragged and superficial.

Learning to speak a language means learning a world, anthropologists and ethnolinguists sometimes claim. This was also the conviction of several forthrightly opinionated retired schoolteachers from Sumatra’s rural South Tapanuli district in the mid-1970s—a group of no-nonsense Angkola Batak older men and women in the market town of Sipirok who took firm charge of my language-learning education there when I was a young (read: callow) visiting American anthropology PhD student from 1974 to 1977. They were teaching me to speak and read the Angkola Batak language. As our lingua franca we used Indonesian, the national language. I had already studied this in an intensive way in American universities before coming to Sumatra. This period of my fieldwork in Sipirok took place about a decade into the installation of the new national Indonesian government, the New Order. In power from 1965 to May 1998, the New Order was a thinly veiled military regime that stressed headlong economic development and centralized control of the ethnically and linguistically diverse country under the guidance of generals.3 In 1974, the county district (kecamatan) and town of Sipirok were caught up in fits of New Order-sponsored pembangunan, economic development.

In the 1970s, some in South Tapanuli felt that the New Order was a scandal, an insult to actual Indonesian patriotism and national hopes for a true republic. For these commentators (many rather elderly then, like my Batak language teachers), the Indonesian national project seemed to have been placed on hold while the New Order state sucked the island of Sumatra dry of its once-abundant resources. Some even said that New Order hegemony in Sumatra was a contemporary form of colonialism, one that was repeating some of the worst aspects of Dutch control of the Indies, if with more irony this time. Other Sipirok residents just kept quiet and tried to endure New Order times. This political climate shaped the way I was taught the Angkola Batak language by my elderly mentors, who were leery of New Order plans and platitudes.

This setting also influenced Sipirok residents’ comments to me about languages in general, about language ways in the remembered colonial Indies, and about language matters under the New Order. Talk about language issues was a favorite topic in Sipirok, I found. Language ideologies were shaped and expressed through much deliberate popular commentary on speech ways in the colonial Indies era; at issue, also, were relationships between languages and the relative prestige of different [End Page 2] languages on the national Indonesian stage.4 My Batak language teachers were among the most voluble on these subjects in informal talks with me.

South Tapanuli was and is a sub-province of Indonesia located far from the centers of national power...