LINGUIST List 29.3947

Thu Oct 11 2018

Review: Applied Linguistics: Zentz (2017)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 15-Apr-2018
From: Magdalena Hackl <>
Subject: Statehood, Scale and Hierarchy
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Lauren Renee Zentz
TITLE: Statehood, Scale and Hierarchy
SUBTITLE: History, Language and Identity in Indonesia
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2017

REVIEWER: Magdalena Hackl, Universität Innsbruck


In “Statehood, Scale and Hierarchy: History, Language and Identity” Lauren Zentz aims at demonstrating how language policy is inextricably linked to the purposes of the state and cannot be seen without the broader actions of the state. The book itself is first and foremost an ethnographic study in which Zentz sets out to exemplify the implications of postcolonial nation-building, nationalism and globalisation for language use in Indonesia in general and in Central Java in particular. With “Statehood, Scale and Hierarchy” Zentz delivers an insightful introduction to the linguistic ecology, language beliefs and ideologies of nationalism in today’s Indonesia.

Chapter 1 ‘States, Language(s) and Globalization’ delivers the theoretical framework for the study. Starting out with a powerful example of top-down language policy, Zentz underpins the policy- and penalty-driven implementation of nation-building exercises in Indonesia. Based on this example, she explores the relationship between the state, nation and language, arguing that concerning the (socio-)linguistic landscape of a nation ‘(t)he state is of course most certainly not the only power and this is increasingly the case, but (…) in general, other centers of orientation exist in relation to it (…)’ (Zentz 2017: 3). In the next section, Zentz investigates the tension field between globalisation and state formation, especially in the postcolonial context, where nation-building efforts and attempts to strengthen the national language have been interrupted by forces of globalisation and the language connected with it: English. According to Zentz (2017: 15), English travels globally and is manipulated locally in order to achieve local ends. In this context, it is important to notice that Zentz takes a postmodern, performative stance on language, preferring ‘to approach language use as the performance of differentially available resources’ (Zentz 2017: 16). Within this framework, she further puts emphasis on ‘communicative repertoires’, a term ‘used to explore the resources people deploy and have access to in terms of stylization, use of linguistic codes, and literary practices’ (Zentz 2017: 20). With this in mind, at the end of the chapter, Zentz describes the linguistic biographies of her focal group participants, university English majors, and introduces the reader to the linguistic ecology of Central Java where the study was conducted. The methodology of of the study is ethnography, based on several methods of data collection, including participant observation, researcher self-reflection, oral interviews and a collection of written documents (Zentz 2017: 25). The ethnographic component of the study is complemented by a historical-structural approach, in order to gain a greater perspective in the synchronic ethnographic observations.

In Chapter 2 ‘Engineering an Imagined Community’ Zentz outlines the cultural and political history of the nation and the islands that form today’s Indonesia. Within this context, she focuses the history of Malay (now Indonesian) while also exploring the status and uses of local (mostly Javanese) and foreign languages (Dutch and English). Zentz begins Chapter 2 with presenting extracts of official policy pronouncements which add up to citizens effectively being obliged to use Indonesian in any public situation, while the use of other languages is relegated to the private sphere, unless absolutely necessary (e.g. in the academic study of foreign languages). In a next step, she outlines the common national narrative, describes the path toward the creation of the Indonesian nation and the decision to use Malay as its national language. It is commonly thought that Malay was chosen to be a national language because of its long-standing role as a lingua franca on the archipelago. The idea that it ‘belonged to no-one yet could belong to everyone’ was aimed at avoiding interethnic conflict. In order to examine the accuracy of this statement, Zentz delves into the history of the Malay language, from its earliest written records in the 7th–10th century, to the Malaccan and Sumatran Kingdoms, the arrival of the Portuguese, the Dutch settlements, the birth of ‘Indonesian’ in the wake of the Youth Pledge of 1928 (which stated that the official language would be called Indonesian), the Institutionalisation through the creation of the first national Indonesian Language Congress in 1938, the Japanese occupation during WWII, and the pronouncement of the first national Constitution in 1945, declaring Indonesian the official language. Then, she turns to the re-scaling and centralisation processes taking place during the authoritarian administration of Indonesia’s second President Suharto. Under his administration, the government pushed the consolidation of the nation and the promotion of the Indonesian language, causing the marginalisation of local cultures and languages. Despite lip service in favour of plurality, the acknowledgement of Indonesia’s cultural and linguistic diversity only began in 1998 when Suharto stepped down. However, Zentz argues that these efforts might have been too little too late. She further ventures the argument this might have been intentional: ‘(n)ow that the state was treated as a natural fact by most Indonesians, attention to local languages and cultural practices would never again gain enough power to threaten national control/unity’ (Zentz 2017: 77).

Subsequently, Zentz enters into a discourse analysis of the Indonesian Language Congress Resolutions, documents written to summarise the five-yearly Indonesian Language Congress. She describes arguments between language planners in favour of Westernisation (mainly Alisjahbana) and those supporting ‘traditional’ views (Moeliono). In a next step, Zentz implicitly puts forward the question ‘can language even be planned?’ by contrasting spontaneous with planned development of Indonesian and pointing out the the gap between official creation and dissemination of terminology. At the end of the chapter, she takes a look at the role of English and globalisation in the language planners’ and the state’s discourse, emphasising that ‘(g)lobalization and English are also used to drum up nationalist sentiment against external powers while erasing the fact that the state holds primary responsibility for the erasure of languages and increases in interethnic conflict’ (Zentz 2017: 94).

In Chapter 3 ‘Locating Languages in Time and Space’ Zentz discusses the status of Javanese in post-colonial Indonesia, mainly focusing on the relations between the local (Javanese) and the national (Indonesian) Zentz argues that as a result of the tremendous nation-building efforts, the Indonesian state has created a situation where Indonesian has become the acceptable form of communication in most contexts, while the formal Javanese register “kromo” has been relegated to the status of the language of local heritage. At the same time the informal register of Javanese “ngoko” which is used quite frequently has been ideologically erased as a language, dismissed as ‘daily talk’ and as not fulfilling the criteria of being a language in the eyes of its users. In a next step, Zentz explores the possible causes of language shift, i.e. the loss of “kromo” and the erasure of “ngoko”, among her focal group participants, who conveyed ideas of common modern linguistic ideologies about the symbolic value of languages. A common notion of “kromo” Javanese, for instance, suggests that the language is grammatically complex and thus difficult to learn. While there is some evidence that youths still try to speak “kromo” as a signal of respect for elders, they tend to shy away from conversing in “kromo” due to heavy correction by interlocutors. Zentz (2017: 133) concludes that ‘it is not simply that this kromo language is disappearing; rather, it is that each speaker’s linguistic repertoire is constructed in proportion with the spaces where s/he spends time and the amounts of time that they spend there.’ Due to the power of the state and its preference for Indonesian, spaces for kromo dwindle. Zentz concludes the chapter with a compelling discussion of the language use in social media and the perceived incapacity of “ngoko” of handling abbreviations which are a crucial part in online communication.

Chapter 4 ‘Preserving the nation’ discusses the role of English in Indonesia. Like English in many other (postcolonial) countries, English in Indonesia is seen both as a threat to the national identity and as an opportunity for the individual and the state, promoting the creation of a skilled workforce that is able to compete in an increasingly globalized marketplace with English as lingua franca. Zentz (2017: 159) emphasises the state’s ambivalence towards English, especially in the education system, by stating that ‘students sometimes get caught in a no-man’s land of the state’s battle for a modern and globally relevant yet independent national identity.’ As in many other postcolonial settings, in Indonesia English is associated with a Western lifestyle and way of (critical) thinking that at times is rejected as vulgar and non-compliant with Indonesian culture, being perceived as too direct. At the same time, it is also seen as a prestige symbol, as ‘English (…) has frequently been synecdochically mistaken for access to wider educational opportunity and the wealth and privilege’ (Zentz 2017: 204) that are necessary to gain access. The commodification of language (English, but also standard Indonesian) encourages the use of ‘purely semiotic’ uses of language, especially of English, indexing simply ‘English’, the language or the concept of it, and the attributes that travel along with it (Zentz 2017: 117). In this context, representations of English in Indonesia become bound in local time and space and are measured on an entirely local scale, erasing the significance of any formal linguistic structure. Zentz (2017: 189) pointedly concludes: ‘English is a foreign language, yet it has entirely local meaning: local values and systems of meaning-making ensure English’s status as a symbol of wealth and privilege among possible Indonesian lifestyles and identities’.

Chapter 5 ‘The State Marches On’ is a powerful conclusion that carves out the connections between the previous chapters in a clear and compact way. Zentz (2017: 206) illustrates the state’s efforts in re-scaling languages with the goal of cultivating nationalism and concurrently not only developing the Indonesian language, but also developing its citizens towards a model of ‘rationality’ perceived to be inherent in European and North American states. In taking up issues discussed in the first chapter and filling the framework with learnings from chapters 2-4, she has built a compelling arch culminating in the final chapter in which she underlines her point with a final example of the state’s attempts to enforce the dominance of Indonesian by attempting to introduce changes in language requirements for foreign workers employed in Indonesia.


Zentz’s “Statehood, Scale and Hierarchy: History, Language and Identity” is an exceptionally insightful ethnographic study exploring the tension between postcoloniality, nationalism and globalisation and its impacts on linguistic patterns in Central Java and Indonesia. In contrast to other scholars, most prominently Phillipson (1992; 2012), Zentz sustains the opinion that globalisation and English as its lingua franca may not necessarily be linked exclusively to linguistic imperialism, but rather suggests that the ensuing hybridisation of identity may also be reflected in new linguistic patterns (similar to Wright 2012 or Blommaert 2014) and a valuable component in renegotiating one’s identity (Zentz 2017: 202) in a globalised world.

In general, it is impressive how Zentz gently uncovers the ambivalence, one might even say the absurdity, of postcolonial nations’ efforts to ‘develop’ their language as well as their economic and political structures towards a Western model, resulting in ‘a perpetual game of catch-up’ (Zentz 2017:207) without passing judgement or adopting the partly very martial terminology of linguistic imperialism and language death that is employed by Phillipson (1992) when dealing with this topic. At the same time, however, Zentz often neglects to mention that processes of language shift and renegotiation of identity are not unique to Central Java or Indonesia but are rather part of a mechanism that is common to postcolonial states and can even be discernible in ‘developed’ non-English-speaking countries.

With this book Zentz offers a comprehensive analysis of the linguistic ecology of Central Java. It is a carefully assembled mosaic of historic insights, analysis of written documents, in situ observations and – at the heart of the mosaic –interviews with the focal group participants. The analysis of the linguistic biographies of her focal group participants not only make the reader identify with the objects of the study but also form a powerful tool for analysing both the motivation for studying English and the shifting identities within the context of re-scaling.

There are many figures, such as photos and maps, and excerpts of documents, which neatly illustrate the author’s arguments. Especially the introductory chapter delivers very dense theoretical background that is less amenable to a non-specialist readership, making it to hard read the book without a sound knowledge of post-modern linguistic theory, language planning and linguistic ecology. The main chapters, 2-5, however, are more accessible to a wider readership as arguments are underpinned by relatable examples and excerpts from focal group participants’ interviews or texts.

As rescaling and language shift are ongoing processes (as Zentz also points out throughout the book and especially in the closing section of the final chapter) research on this these topics is never concluded. Especially the particularly compelling Section 3.4 ‘A Transition: New Technology, National Scales’ on linguistic patterns in mobile and online communication could provide an introduction for further research on this topic. In conclusion, the book is highly recommendable to scholars interested in language policy and planning, especially in a postcolonial context, the role of English as a global lingua franca and language shift.


Blommaert, Jan. 2014. State Ideology and Language in Tanzania: Second and revised edition (2nd ed.). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Spolsky, Bernard (ed.). (2012) The Cambridge Handbook of Language Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Phillipson, Robert. 1992. Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Phillipson, Robert. 2012. ‘Imperialism and colonialsm’, in Spolsky, Bernard (ed.). The Cambridge Handbook of Language Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 203-225.

Wright, Sue. 2012. ‘Language policy, the nation and nationalism’, in Spolsky, Bernard (ed.). The Cambridge Handbook of Language Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 59-78.

Zentz, Lauren. 2017. Statehood, Scale, Hierarchy: History, Language and Identity in Indonesia. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.


Magdalena Hackl completed her MA in Translation Studies at the University of Innsbruck in 2017. Her MA-thesis focuses on language policy in a postcolonial context. Accordingly, her research interest are postcoloniality, nation-building, globalisation and language as well as English as a lingua franca.

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