Language Situation in Indonesian Papua

There are more than 700 languages spoken in Indonesia. About 280 – i.e. more than 35% – of these speech communities are located in the provinces of West Papua and Papua (Ethnologue). All these languages either belong to the Austronesian language family or are classified as so-called Papuan languages. The major Papuan language is Western Dani and has 180.000 speakers; the major Austronesian language in this area is Biak with some 30.000 speakers. Sapone is the smallest Papuan language with 4 speakers, and for Mapia there is only one speaker left, making it the smallest Austronesian language in Indonesian Papua.

Many languages of Indonesia are currently in danger of extinction and most of the endangered languages are spoken in the provinces of West Papua and Papua. Endangered languages are those languages whose usage domains are presently undergoing a rapid reduction. This reduction manifests itself, inter alia, through the fact that the linguistic competence of speakers under twenty is extremely varied, ranging from highly fluent speakers who use the language every day to speakers with a primarily passive vocabulary.

UNESCO’s Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger (2009) reports that more than 200 languages have become extinct within the last three generations. 538 languages are critically endangered, 502 severely endangered, 632 definitely endangered, and 607 unsafe. However, a number of concerned linguists and cultural policy-makers are slowly and increasingly getting governments, NGOs, and centers of culture, science, and education activated to respond constructively towards this alarming global trend.

“The death of a language leads to the disappearance of many forms of intangible cultural heritage, especially the invaluable heritage of traditions and oral expressions of the community that spoke it – from poems and legends to proverbs and jokes. The loss of languages is also detrimental to humanity’s grasp of biodiversity, as they transmit much knowledge about the nature and the universe.” Koïchiro Matsuura (UNESCO Director-General)