Indonesia Expat
History/Culture Lifestyle

Preserving the Balinese Language for Generations to Come

BASAbali Software | Photo by BASAbali

Language represents culture. In culturally-rich Indonesia this is especially true; being an archipelago of over 17,000 islands with around 300 distinct native ethnic groups and 706 living languages.

With the formation of the nation, and the Indonesian national language 65 years ago however, some of the country’s minority languages declined. The Balinese language is one of these, and one of the linguistic treasures of Indonesia that needs to continue to develop and be maintained, along with other regional languages (and Indonesian, of course).

“Our goal is to celebrate how Indonesia’s minority languages can co-exist and thrive along with the national language,” says Alissa Stern, Founding Director of BASAbali, a US-based not for profit organization that is dedicated to the promotion and preservation of the Balinese language.

Considered by experts a difficult language to master, Balinese is greatly complicated by its caste influences. There’s high Balinese, low and middle Balinese, plus a number of variations of the three languages.

The Bali Cultural Agency estimates that the number of people still using Balinese does not exceed 1 million on an island with a population greater than 4 million people.

Balinese is mostly spoken in social and culture interactions; Indonesian, however is increasingly the language of commerce, in schools and public places.

“We need to take seriously the proposition that languages are part of a person’s – and a society’s – identity, and we need to value languages as we do other precious resources,” Stern adds. A graduate from Harvard Law School, with a BA in Anthropology and Southeast Asian Studies from Cornell University, who is now pursuing a graduate degree in linguistic anthropology at George Washington University, the spark of initiative that led her to consider the possibilities of studying the Balinese language from afar occurred after a conversation with a Balinese priest in 2009. “You can never really understand how someone else makes sense of the world unless you speak their language,” she says.

Stern then set out to discover her options. After engaging with several of the top Southeast Asian language programs in the US, and Balinese experts in Bali and around the world, she found that aside from a couple of books, dictionaries, and studies, there were almost no resources available. BASAbali brought together linguists, videographers, anthropologists, language software specialists, language teachers and others who could share their knowledge and experience with language learning programmes to create a unique fusion of tradition and modernity. Their goal: to create a fun contemporary approach to learning, blending technology, images and sounds.

“We believe that the planet thrives when there is diversity and BASAbali wants to strengthen Balinese while there is a solid base of speakers rather than waiting until the language is endangered,” Stern says. Located in Washington DC, BASAbali is a virtual community of volunteers and experts who are linguists, anthropologists, students, and laypeople, from within and outside of Bali, who are working to keep Balinese strong and sustainable.

Self teaching method in BASAbali software | Photo by BASAbali
Self teaching methods using BASAbali software | Photo by BASAbali

With money raised through crowdfunding and software generously donated by Transparent Language, BASAbali engaged the help of Visual Bali, a local videographer and linguists from Udayana University, who produced 24 dialogue videos and accompanying language exercises. Patricia Chan, a Javanese digital media specialist helped with a series of modules to teach the endangered Balinese script. The program is given to non-profit organizations free of charge while the software has been incorporated into the regular middle school curriculum in Denpasar. The program offers instruction in Indonesian for native Indonesian speakers, or in English, and is available online, as a DVD, and for mobile devices.

“During 2014/2015 we engaged in some very exciting projects,” says the Director of BASABali in Bali, Ayu Mandala, a driving force behind the organizations operations in Bali. “Working with students and professors from DwiJendra and Udayana Universities in Bali we translated over 7,500 phrases needed to translate Google’s home page into Balinese as a part of Google’s effort to provide a web presence for minority languages.”

“We partnered with Banjar Bali USA along with Balinese communities in eight other countries in a unique event in November, commemorating the Balinese Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, art and education – Saraswati. Coinciding with Saraswati Day, a celebration of the riches of languages with the performance of poetry in Balinese, Indonesian, and a number of other world languages simulcast in participating countries was held.”

Working with Balinese communities in different countries along with the relevant Indonesian embassies participants

Students using BASAbali Resources | Photo by BASAbali
Students using BASAbali resources | Photo by BASAbali

engaged in the reading of Balinese poetry in different languages. Winners were drawn of a monthly online poetry contest that encouraged people to write in Balinese and to contribute to a free, online ‘living’ Balinese-English-Indonesian wiki dictionary, underscoring the international importance of Balinese.

“A live annual poetry slam in honour of Saraswati Day will be an ongoing event, along with a monthly online poetry contest,” Mandala says. “Our main programme in 2016 is continuing the development of our Balinese-English-Indonesian wiki dictionary which the public can use and contribute to, which is innovative as both a resource and as a tool. As a resource, it functions as a modern, up-to-date Balinese reference dictionary with example sentences taken from real live sources and with videos of native speakers.”

“Tool-wise, through the Banjar Project we are going into banjars to develop ‘wiki ambassadors’, so as to encourage people, especially parents with small kids, to take videos and upload them so that they become part of the process of helping their language.”

Nowadays governments are often concerned about cultural homogenization and promoting one unifying national language. The international community often focuses on commercially viable languages or ones with significant political sway. Yet BASAbali perceives our world as a world of living languages. Visiting their website gives an insight to the breadth of their commitment to the Balinese language via networks and team work.

“We thrive on challenges,” Mandala says. “Creating suitable programs that can reach all levels of education and cross sections of community requires enormous deliberations. Our mission is to encourage people, native or otherwise, to speak in Balinese in more places, more of the time.”

“This is an immense local and international effort working together with many experts to successfully create our events and programs. Presenting universal interactive media is an incredible achievement and is enormously satisfying.”

For more about BASAbali, please go to:

The free multimedia Balinese-English-Indonesian dictionary, wiki is at

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