How Facebook can revitalise local languages: lessons from Bali

For a language to survive, it must be spoken and passed down to the next generation. But how can we engage teenagers – so crucial for language transmission – to use and value their local tongue when they are bombarded by pressures from outside and from within their society to only speak national and international languages? This paper analyses the extent to which social media can actively engage teenagers in using minority languages by examining a vibrant Balinese language Facebook group which is oriented to teens. The study finds that this particular group uses peer pressure and peer modeling to actively create space for young people to use Balinese 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, regardless of official policies, school practices, and family norms. By operating in the shadows outside of government, school, and family structures, this study suggests that social media can be a highly effective, low-cost, and easily implementable way to foster language revitalisation among the crucial young generation.

The symbolic relationship between the world of wayang [shadow puppets] and the material world reflects what is known in Bali as the relationship between bhuana agung and bhuana alit, the microcosm and the macrocosm. (Jenkins 2010Jenkins, Ron. 2010. Rua Bineda in Bali: Counterfeit Justice in the Trial of Nyoman Gunarasa. Den Pasar: Indonesia University of the Arts., 99)


Indonesia has done a remarkable job of getting its people to all speak the same language. This was no small feat. The population of 250 million has over 700 mother tongues and is spread over 6000 inhabited islands. But the success of the national language came at a cost: the Indonesian government requires that all ‘communication of an official nature’ including ‘legal contracts, state documents … presidential speeches … scientific correspondence, the naming of buildings and workplace communication’ be in Indonesian (Fox 2012Fox, Richard. 2012. “Ngelidin Sétra, Nepukin Sema? Thoughts on Language and Writing in Contemporary Bali.” Jurnal Kajian Bali: Journal of Bali Studies2 (2): 2148., 23). Now, by regulation or norm, local languages appear in only a few public venues. Local newspapers on the island of Bali, for example, use Balinese – one of Indonesia’s minority languages – only on Sundays, Balinese language programmes are aired on television for a half hour a day, and schools, conforming to national regulations, limit instruction in Balinese to 2 hours per week or less.

Many young Balinese parents feel caught between wanting to carry on Balinese traditions and giving their kids a competitive edge in the wider Indonesian and global markets which prioritise Indonesian or English over the local tongue. The increasing rate of intermarriage of Balinese to non-Balinese Indonesians or other nationals further discourages the use of Balinese. The result, as reported in the 2010 census, is that out of a population of 3.9 million Balinese living in Indonesia, only 1.68 million can still speak Balinese (Badan Pusat Statistik 2010Badan Pusat Statistik. 2010. Penduduk Indonesia: Hasil Sensus Penduduk 2010. Jakarta: Badan Pusat Statistik.: Table 11.9 and Table 29.3). Although the census glosses over what actually counts as speaking Balinese (i.e., does ‘speaking’ require full facility of Balinese’s complicated register system or does it just mean being able to get a point across?), the numbers are concerning.

In just the last few years, Balinese linguists, young teachers of Balinese, and other local writers and advocates have been trying to turn things around with the cooperation of the local government. In 2013, for example, when the national government tried to put even tighter controls on the use of Balinese in schools by combining Balinese language, art, and culture into a single hour per week, Balinese language teachers held wide-scale demonstrations which prevented the change (Kurikulum 2013Kurikulum 2013: Akademisi Bali Tolak Penggabungan Bahasa Daerah Dengan Seni. 2013. Bali Daily, March 2.). Earlier this year, the Balinese government hired 716 new Balinese language teachers and has finally started developing modern textbooks to teach the language. In one of the more stunning revitalisation efforts, the Mayor of Badung Province announced in March of this year that every Friday will be Balinese Language Day throughout government offices, schools, and community organisations in Bandung – regardless of national restrictions to the contrary. How this will work in practice still needs to be seen, but even the proclamation itself was momentous. Equally as profound – and as recent – has been the publication over the last year or so of several modern Balinese language novels, short stories, and poetry collections. A few months ago, the well-known Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival held sessions highlighting works by local authors who are writing in Balinese. And, even more recently, a few young Balinese writers launched an exciting new journal of modern Balinese language literature.

Rapid revitalisation developments have been taking place in the digital world as well. Taking its cue from the Indonesian shadow puppet theatre – a highly stylised public street theatre through which Balinese have traditionally voiced concern about government policies under the censorship radar – a Facebook group called Lestarikan Bahasa Bali (LBB) is trying to change the conversation about when and where Balinese is and can be spoken. The site already has over 62,000 members – mostly teens and young adults – who are communicating in Balinese 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Several other Balinese language sites have since emerged which also support the non-digital initiatives, including the training of new Balinese language teachers.

This paper will explore the extent to which the Facebook group LBB – and by extension, similar social media sites – can revitalise the Balinese language irrespective of official institutions and individual family practices. It will specifically look at how LBB engages large numbers of young adults to communicate more of the time, improving the likelihood of intergenerational language transmission (Fishman 1991Fishman, Joshua A. 1991. Reversing Language Shift. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.).

The data points for this study are from 2016 postings on the LBB site itself, discussions with site administrators and other members of LBB, and with other native Balinese speakers who specifically chose not become members of the LBB group. This study will try to understand how LBB is contributing to the revitalisation of Balinese and how the group might serve as a model for other language communities.

Lestarikan Bahasa Bali

In the 1970s, cultural tourism became the latest strategy by the Balinese government for ‘protecting’ Balinese culture in a long line of initiatives aimed at curtailing threats to the Balinese way of life (Vickers 2012Vickers, Adrian. 2012. Bali: A Paradise Created. Singapore: Tuttle Publishing.). Much of this effort was captured under the rhetoric of the slogan Bali Lestari (‘Bali Preserved’) which tried to thwart ‘cultural pollution’ (Picard 2009Picard, Michael. 2009. “From ‘Kebalian’ to ‘Ajeg Bali’ Tourism and Balinese Identity in the Aftermath of the Kuta Bombing.” In Tourism in Southeast Asia: Challenges and New Directions, edited by Michael Hitchcock, Victor T. King, and Micahel Parnwell, 99131. Copenhagen: NIAS Press., 122). The Facebook group LBB (‘Preserve the Balinese Language’) riffs off this 1970s’ slogan, even though the discourse on Balinese culture has largely evolved from the Indonesian phrase Bali Lestari to the Balinese Ajeg Bali, meaning ‘Bali Erect’. The difference between Bali Lestari and Ajeg Bali, described by in detail by Fox (2010Fox, Richard. 2010. “Why Media Matter: Critical Reflections on Religion and the Recent History of ‘the Balinese’.” History of Religions 49 (4): 354392. doi: 10.1086/649855[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®]), goes beyond a difference in whether the national Indonesian language or the local Balinese is being used. Ajeg Bali has a performative undertone (Picard 2009Picard, Michael. 2009. “From ‘Kebalian’ to ‘Ajeg Bali’ Tourism and Balinese Identity in the Aftermath of the Kuta Bombing.” In Tourism in Southeast Asia: Challenges and New Directions, edited by Michael Hitchcock, Victor T. King, and Micahel Parnwell, 99131. Copenhagen: NIAS Press., 122). The Balinese government popularised the phrase Ajeg Bali after the 2002 bombings in Bali to direct the Balinese to ‘stand up’ from the ‘feeling of shame mixed with anger’ that many Balinese felt after the bombings (Picard 2009Picard, Michael. 2009. “From ‘Kebalian’ to ‘Ajeg Bali’ Tourism and Balinese Identity in the Aftermath of the Kuta Bombing.” In Tourism in Southeast Asia: Challenges and New Directions, edited by Michael Hitchcock, Victor T. King, and Micahel Parnwell, 99131. Copenhagen: NIAS Press., 122), invoking what anthropologist Degung Santikarma characterises as ‘a macho sound, resonating with military bravery, unbroachable [sic] barricades, and unflagging erections’ (Fox 2010Fox, Richard. 2010. “Why Media Matter: Critical Reflections on Religion and the Recent History of ‘the Balinese’.” History of Religions 49 (4): 354392. doi: 10.1086/649855[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®], 362). With Ajeg Bali, the government tried to harness the zeal of the urban youth to stand up for traditional Balinese culture.

But for many Balinese millennials and in Generation Z, Ajeg Bali has a certain anti-modernity, anti-globalisation revivalist tone that they consider contrary to their cosmopolitan generation (Lewis and Lewis 2009Lewis, Jeff, and Belinda Lewis. 2009. Bali’s Silent Crisis: Desire, Tragedy, and Transition. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books., 233), as if Ajeg Bali is trying to freeze Balinese society into a ‘living museum’, the same way the Dutch colonialists tried to do with their Baliseering policy (Picard 2009Picard, Michael. 2009. “From ‘Kebalian’ to ‘Ajeg Bali’ Tourism and Balinese Identity in the Aftermath of the Kuta Bombing.” In Tourism in Southeast Asia: Challenges and New Directions, edited by Michael Hitchcock, Victor T. King, and Micahel Parnwell, 99131. Copenhagen: NIAS Press., 122–124). To underscore their mission of modernising Balinese culture rather than merely preserving it in a nostalgic past, administrators of the LBB Facebook group chose to name the group after the old Lestari motto rather than the new Ajeg, ironic since LBB’s hip, sensational, and sometimes racy postings seem more evocative of Ajeg than of Lestari. ‘LBB’, according to one of the group’s members, wants to ‘bring Bali into the modern world’ not just to renew Balinese but to reconstruct it into modernity, highlighting the complex evolution of Balinese identity from Bali Lestari to Ajeg Balito LBB.

One of the administrators explained to me that despite its name, the group’s goal is ‘primarily social’. Members ask to join the private Facebook group with the click of a button and are expected to follow the group’s norms as spelled out on the site. The norms do not explicitly require members to use Balinese, but they do grant members permission to use the language by stating: ‘don’t be shy to use Balinese’. In quintessentially circumvent Balinese style, this translates into a directive to only use Balinese when posting.

The content of the LBB postings varies from rituals to rock music, politics to prose, funny scenes to frivolous selfies. Postings about abiding by or celebrating particular cultural observances seem to engender significant traffic as measured by the number of reactions and comments. A posting of some teens getting fined for disobeying restrictions against going out on Nyepi, the Balinese holiday of silence, for example, produced 2100 ‘likes’ and over 200 largely supportive comments. There are a significant number of postings which use language in playful ways – puns and wordplay figuring largely in Balinese discourse (Sherzer 1993Sherzer, Joel. 1993. “On Puns, Comebacks, Verbal Dueling, and Play Languages: Speech Play in Balinese Verbal Life.” Language in Society 22 (2): 217233. doi: 10.1017/S0047404500017115[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®], [CSA]) – but few postings are directly about preserving the Balinese language, language policy developments, or language competitions of the type that frequently appear in the local newspapers.

One linguist from Udayana University said that the postings on LBB are inappropriately ‘sensational’ by which he meant crude, rude, or otherwise inappropriate, what the late Made Wijaya, a well-known Balinese-speaking Australian blogger, called in personal correspondence with me as ‘excellent use of Balinese’ but ‘low, expressive in the extreme’ (cited with permission). ‘Facebook’, Made Wijaya explained, ‘allows the creative Balinese to dip into depths of vitriolic language, without applying the brakes/constraints of civility’ (Wijaya 2016Wijaya, Made. 2016. “Stranger in Paradise.” Blog. Members of LBB say that they primarily post on LBB because the content appeals to them, which seems to keep the members posting, and others from not joining.

Some stay away from LBB because of its use of Balinese as a lingua franca. Of the native Balinese I spoke with who chose not to join LBB, a couple said that they found it difficult using Balinese because of their own lack of fluency with the language and so preferred to post in the easier and less stratified Indonesian. Vivik, age 28, for example, said ‘Every day, I use Indonesian. I understand Balinese but it’s hard for me to speak Balinese.’ Reni, age 28, said ‘It’s easier for me to write a quick message in Indonesian.’ Two others thought that Balinese was not ‘sufficiently modern’ for social media. Said Arya, age 20, ‘ … in this modern era, many (Balinese) people like to follow the western trend that they see on the internet or social media. That is one of the reasons why some people are ashamed of using Balinese’. Ida, age 20, responded similarly. When asked what language she used on social media, she responded ‘Not Balinese, a modern language like Indonesian or English.’

It was Made, age 21, though, who got to the heart of the paradox of using Balinese on Facebook: ‘It can’t be used according to “proper” Balinese grammar which has a different syntax … . If people use it, it’s just for swear words’ noting that Balinese has much more colourful swear words than Indonesian. Traditionally, Balinese speakers choose pronouns, verbs, nouns, and other parts of speech which have the ‘same denotative meaning’ and may have ‘no phonic resemblance to each other’, according to the status of the speakers relative to each other, the relationship between them, and what they are talking about (Keeler 2006Keeler, Ward. 2006. “The Pleasures of Polyglossia: Translation in Balinese and Javanese Performing Arts.” In Between Tongues: Translation and/of/in Performance in Asia, edited by Jennifer Lindsay, 204–223. Singapore: Singapore University Press., 209–211). The speech registers are used to ‘show shifting emotions, relationships, and points of view’ indexing Bali’s ‘particularly elaborated view of personhood defined in both social and metaphysical, political and metalinguistic terms’ (Zurbuchen 1981Zurbuchen, Mary Sabina. 1981. “The Shadow Theater of Bali: Explorations in Language and Text.” PhD diss., University of Michigan., 111–112). In face-to-face discussions, some words or whole sentences might be elevated or denigrated, as Mary Zurbuchen describes with visual clarity, ‘directed “up” and “down” at the same time’, not like ‘a train which switches between one or another of various parallel “tracks”’ but like a ‘continuous movement along a continuum of more-or-less, where different points in an utterance may show reciprocity, deprecation or respect’ (Zurbuchen 1981Zurbuchen, Mary Sabina. 1981. “The Shadow Theater of Bali: Explorations in Language and Text.” PhD diss., University of Michigan., 99). Choosing which registers to use when and with whom depends on the Balinese doctrine of desa, kala, patra. Literally ‘village, time, ornamental leaf’, desa, kala, patra refers to ‘place, time, and custom’, commonly explained as ‘wherever, whenever and in whatever situation a person finds themselves in, they should think, say and act according to that situation’.

Since it is never clear on Facebook who is reading public postings, it is impossible for posters to place themselves in a social status relative to those who are reading the postings. This makes registers difficult to use so many have opted for Indonesian, which, as the ‘language of democracy’ (Kuipers 1998Kuipers, Joel C. 1998. Language, Identity, and Marginality in Indonesia. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.[CrossRef], 137), is also more comfortable for many young Balinese. But LBB is changing that culture, accounting for speaker-listener or poster-reader anonymity and status discomfort by fostering a ‘Facebook Balinese’, a flattened, less stratified, semi-formal – and for many, more accessible – version of Balinese. In Bali, this way of speaking is often called ‘bahasa sosmed’ or ‘bahasa medsos’ (‘social media language’), the alternative names indicative of the fluidity of Balinese grammar, which the beloved linguist priest Father Norbert Shadeg characterised as not having the fixed rules ‘as may be peculiar to the western languages’ (Shadeg 1977Shadeg, Norbert S. V. D. 1977. A Basic Balinese Vocabulary. Den Pasar: Dharma Bakti., 176). Or as Richard Fox explains, ‘to speak Balinese “by the book” is to fail to speak it competently’ (Fox 2012Fox, Richard. 2012. “Ngelidin Sétra, Nepukin Sema? Thoughts on Language and Writing in Contemporary Bali.” Jurnal Kajian Bali: Journal of Bali Studies2 (2): 2148., 25). Perhaps more profoundly, though, is that by naming what is being spoken on social media, the Balinese are characterising that speech as something distinct from what is generally used in face-to-face interactions.

LBB’S influence on face-to-face interactions

Is bahasa sosmed, the language of LBB, being carried over into ‘real’ life? That is, are groups like LBB changing when, where, and how people are speaking Balinese? To answer that, we need to parse out the attributes of bahasa sosmed. According to the LBB members I spoke with, bahasa sosmed mostly uses only one register which is mostly ‘semi-halus’, described as a ‘semi-respectful level that is more or less halfway between everyday Balinese (“bahasa sehari-hari”) and the more formal Balinese (“bahasa halus”), casual to fit with social media but sufficiently respectful not to offend anyone’. It is used in posts, comments, and texts (as compared to being spoken) and it can be used 24 hours a day, 7 days week in a variety of contexts.

Even in the late 70s, Father Shadeg suggested that a flattened Balinese would develop from ‘modern movements for democracy, equality, and non-discrimination’ that would peel away at the status differentiation of traditional Balinese (Shadeg 1977Shadeg, Norbert S. V. D. 1977. A Basic Balinese Vocabulary. Den Pasar: Dharma Bakti., 175). This flattening is slowly happening in face-to-face life as well. Many young Balinese say that they shy away from using Balinese altogether in favour of the more democratic Indonesian, even though there are far fewer registers in play in this generation than in past ones.

In the digital arena, although the Balinese royalty has sites that are ‘always super polite, to the point of being polished petite bourgeois and super exclusive’ (Wijaya 2016Wijaya, Made. 2016. “Stranger in Paradise.” Blog., LBB is a space for the more democratically inclined, less traditional, and less rule-bound young masses. Purists may feel that the uni-registered language used on social media has lost so much nuance that it no longer seems like Balinese. But as Crystal (2004Crystal, David. 2004. The Language Revolution. Cambridge: Polity Press.) points out, all languages change, all languages borrow from each other. ‘[T]here is no such thing as a “pure” language, and never has been.’ Crystal warns against purism dominating the endangered language debate:

The teenagers are the parents of the next generation of children, and if the language is to be passed on, they must be persuaded that there is a point. But each time “their” language is rejected by community elders because it is “incorrect” this vitality is reduced. It is another nail in the coffin. (Crystal 2004Crystal, David. 2004. The Language Revolution. Cambridge: Polity Press.)

Balinese linguists largely agree, warning that if the level required of Balinese is too high, it will deter participation ‘because people will be afraid of making mistakes’ a concern frequently expressed by young people. Traditionally, violations are not just considered to be bad manners or ignorance, but ‘as a transgression against cosmological order, and in more extreme cases, as a statement of one’s political opinion vis-à-vis the holders of power’ (Connor 1979Connor, Linda. 1979. “Corpse Abuse and Trance in Bali: The Cultural Mediation of Aggression.” Mankind 12 (2): 104118., 113). As a space where a single mid-level registered Balinese is acceptable, LBB members said that they feel liberated from making register mistakes. Members rarely correct each other’s use of registers (although word choice often is corrected, usually in jest), encouraging one another to continue using Balinese instead of the non-registered Indonesian or, worse, English. Members still have the freedom to speak a little more formally or a little more casually if they so choose, which more or less tracks with the age of the poster (older posters tend to be more formal), but most stay with the one mid-range level. A linguist from Udayana University underscored how important it is for linguists ‘to be careful about dissuading people from speaking’ even though they may use inconsistent spelling, crass language, and some amount of increasingly common ‘Jakartan slang.’ LBB is a productive space for young people to speak Balinese however they can, allowing for, as linguist David Crystal suggests, ‘a highly colloquial and “cool” level of language use’ to exist ‘alongside a highly formal and “correct” level’ (Crystal 2004Crystal, David. 2004. The Language Revolution. Cambridge: Polity Press.).

Traditionally an oral language, on LBB, Balinese is, of course, being written and read. Although more Balinese is appearing in the Sunday newspapers and in short stories, poetry collections and novels, most non-digital reading and writing is still largely done in ceremonial use and in the limited allocated school hours. On LBB and other social media sites, however, Balinese is being written and read, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. LBB’s 10 administrators try to keep members using the Balinese language – as compared to Indonesian or English or, increasingly common, a mix – by frequently posting and commenting only in Balinese, with an expectation that the members will respond in kind. The weight of modelling is strong. All of the respondents who could easily speak in Balinese said that they respond in Balinese when ‘posted’ to in Balinese, not surprising for a multilingual culture where people adapt to one another in order to be understood (Jakobson 1995Jakobson, Roman. 1995. “Language and Parole: Code and Message.” In On Language, edited by Linda R. Waugh and Monique Monville-Burston, 80109. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press., 92). Occasionally, the administrators have ousted people for insisting on posting in English or Indonesian, the puppet masters giving form to the struggles in the digital world ‘enabling the audience to see connections between their own lives and the examples played out in shadows on the screen’ (Jenkins 2010Jenkins, Ron. 2010. Rua Bineda in Bali: Counterfeit Justice in the Trial of Nyoman Gunarasa. Den Pasar: Indonesia University of the Arts., 36).

So we have a group whose official name is Preserve the Balinese Language, a spinoff of an old school Indonesian language slogan. It has a public goal of ‘protecting Balinese culture generally so that local languages can be used within it’ but says that what it is really about is creating a social space. Only a tiny fraction of the content is about the Balinese language even though the vast majority of the postings are in Balinese. In the shadow puppet plays, the:

light represents the truth and the darkness represents what is false … . These conflicting forces need each other to exist so that truth emerges in contrast to the falseness that opposes it, just as the light is visible in contrast to the darkness that shadows it. (Jenkins 2010Jenkins, Ron. 2010. Rua Bineda in Bali: Counterfeit Justice in the Trial of Nyoman Gunarasa. Den Pasar: Indonesia University of the Arts., 35)

By providing an unrestricted, non-judgemental, modern internationally recognised space for people to use Balinese whenever they want, LBB has quietly but profoundly broken through the linguistic restrictions placed on the language by the government and the norms of a globalised world. LBB may be considered a little wild according to traditional Balinese sensibilities and a little loose compared with how the language is traditionally spoken, but it has gotten thousands of young Balinese speaking Balinese much of the time, becoming part of the multilayered complex set of forces at work in the revitalisation of Balinese.

The puppet masters

Like the shadow puppet plays, the relation of LBB to a real-world context is ‘immanent and unavoidable’ with the agents’ words ‘at once “real” and yet only reflective of another order of reality’ (Zurbuchen 1981Zurbuchen, Mary Sabina. 1981. “The Shadow Theater of Bali: Explorations in Language and Text.” PhD diss., University of Michigan., 355). It is no surprise then that the Balinese word for puppet master, dalang, relates to the word, medalang, ‘to bring forth, make apparent’, with the dalang’s job ‘to clarify what is only dimly apparent, to bring forth significance from the shadows into the light’ (Zurbuchen 1981Zurbuchen, Mary Sabina. 1981. “The Shadow Theater of Bali: Explorations in Language and Text.” PhD diss., University of Michigan., 355). It is the same with LBB.

By providing a mechanism for people outside the group to see the postings (only members can post to LBB but the postings are publically visible), Facebook itself is shifting the linguistic landscape while it influences others in the digital world. At the same time it is being influenced by them. Like LBB and the other agents, Facebook is mediating relationships, dynamically bringing Balinese into the modern world and becoming part of its evolution: a ‘medium and a mediator of Balinese language and culture’ explained Mas Ruscitadewi, one of the originators of Bali Orti, the Balinese language column – now page – of the Bali Post newspaper in a recent email conversation with me. It is not, as Hobart (2006Hobart, Mark. 2006. “Just Talk? Anthropological Reflections on the Object of Media Studies in Indonesia.” Asian Journal of Social Science 34 (3): 492519. doi: 10.1163/156853106778048641[CrossRef]) finds in an analysis of the nature and consequences of mass media, ‘just talk’.

The message in the shadows

Lempert and Silverstein (2012Lempert, Michael, and Michael Silverstein. 2012. Creatures of Politics. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press., 218) make the point that even though any individual newspaper article may not be particularly interesting in its own right, it ‘verbally constructs … .as is construes’ cultural values through ‘social space-time’ in sometimes ‘innovative ways’. Even though the content of individual LBB postings of teen girls posing for selfies, a picture of a motorcycle, or a survey about whether giving bananas or roses is more romantic may not be of particular interest (sidenote: bananas won by a landslide), the fact that the postings are consistently in Balinese is noteworthy, and counter to the government’s inclusivity values: people from all islands are encouraged to use Indonesian when it is not clear that everyone can understand the local language. When BASAbali, an organisation I advise which helps to encourage Balinese revitalisation efforts, first started posting on Facebook 4–5 years before LBB was launched, people wrote to us to say that they felt inappropriate using Balinese, not because of the difficulty of using a highly registered language on social media – although that certainly was an issue – but because they felt that using Balinese on an international platform was inappropriately exclusive: not everyone would be able to understand what they were saying. At the same time, others said that seeing Balinese used in an international platform made them feel that Bali was part of the modern world.

LBB is a message about the permissibility of using Balinese on Facebook, and Facebook is a message that Balinese is alive and relevant in today’s digital world. These messages participate in constituting the ideology of the Balinese language and the identity of modernity. How that ideology actually evolves with new technology is a complex one, there being ‘no simple link between identity and language choice’ (Sallabank 2010Sallabank, Julia. 2010. “The Role of Social Networks in Endangered Language Maintenance and Revitalization: The Case of Guernesiais in the Channel Islands.” Anthropological Linguistics 52 (2): 184205. doi: 10.1353/anl.2010.0011[CrossRef], 189). As Mairead Moriarty discussed in her work on minority languages, ‘[i]n order to fully establish the role of these media in the future survival and maintenance of such languages’, there needs to be a better understanding of ‘how these new roles for endangered languages may change language practices, and how they can be incorporated into language planning, policy and revitalization initiatives’ (Moriarty 2011Moriarty, Máiréad. 2011. “New Roles for Endangered Languages.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages, edited by Peter K. Austin and Julia Sallabank, 446458. New York: Cambridge University Press.[CrossRef], 458).


Digital genres emerge from the ‘practices used in creating intertextual relations within other bodies of discourse’ (Baumann and Briggs 1992Baumann, Richard, and Charles L. Briggs. 1992. “Gender, Intertexuality and Social Power.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology2: 131172. doi: 10.1525/jlin.1992.2.2.131[CrossRef], [CSA], 163). Facebook postings become part of a network – with all the public readings and comments and reactions – with a speed that ‘approximate[s] face-to-face dyadic speech’ (Dent, forthcomingDent, Alexander. Forthcoming. “What’s a Cellular Public?” In Special Issue of Anthropology Quarterly entitled Unseen Connections: The Materiality of Cell Phones., 16). But it is the public layering of the readings and comments and reactions, both immediately and over the course of time, which makes the boundaries of Facebook postings particularly porous and consequential for Balinese. LBB boldly puts into play that Balinese can exist alongside the official state language of Indonesian without posing any threat to it. And conversely, Indonesian should be able to thrive without unnecessarily threatening Balinese, in what Bernard Spolsky talks about as a ‘continued negotiation of an acceptable relationship’ between minority and state languages (Spolsky 2003Spolsky, Bernard. 2003. “Reassessing Māori Regeneration.” Language in Society 32 (4): 553578. doi: 10.1017/S0047404503324042[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®], [CSA], 569).

LBB is further constructing a deep and evolving ecology of Balinese in a newly imagined desa kala patra. It is evocative, as blogger Made Wijaya told me, of the Balinese ‘owning their own Balineseness’. Until recently, an individual’s choice of what language to use tended to be influenced by the parents’ ethnicity, the language spoken in the home environment, and the ethnic heterogeneity of classroom and social environments (Kagami 2012Kagami, Haruya. 2012. “National/Local Languages and Youth: A Case Study from Bali.” In Words in Motion: Language and Discourse in Post-New Order, edited by Keith Foulcher, Mikihiro Moriyama, and Manneke Budiman, 173190. Tokyo: Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.). But now the Internet is being added to the mix, contributing to the ‘different ways that social worlds shape things that one can do or say with words by shaping notions about personhood, society and speech’ (Rosaldo 1982Rosaldo, Michelle Z. 1982. “The Things We Do with Words: Ilongot Speech Acts and Speech Act Theory in Philosophy.” Language in Society 11 (2): 20337. doi: 10.1017/S0047404500009209[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®], [CSA], 228). Balinese may only appear in the newspapers on Sundays and only in schools 1–2 hours a week, but on LBB, Balinese is used 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, like ‘puppeteers on skateboards’ (Lewis and Lewis 2009Lewis, Jeff, and Belinda Lewis. 2009. Bali’s Silent Crisis: Desire, Tragedy, and Transition. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books., 234), traditional culture bearers who harness new technologies to maintain respect for traditional community values in a creative resilience of community sustainability and growth.

In his work on the Gapun villagers of Papua New Guinea, Don Kulick found that identities and ideologies are ‘not always mutually reinforcing but may be in tension’ and that in Gabun, that tension ‘moved the local language towards extinction’ (Kulick 1998Kulick, Don. 1998. “Anger, Gender, Language Shift and the Politics of Revelation in a Papua New Guinean Village.” In Language Ideologies: Practice and Theory, edited by Bambi Schieffelin, Kathryn Woolard, and Paul Kroskrity, 87–102. Oxford: Oxford University Press.). Until a few years ago when the vast majority of the Facebook pages were all Indonesian, similar tensions were tugging at Balinese. But groups like LBB suggest that those same tensions can skew in the direction of strengthening Balinese, especially when they are aimed at encouraging teenagers and young adults – the parents of the next generation – to use, think, and post in minority languages (Crystal 2004Crystal, David. 2004. The Language Revolution. Cambridge: Polity Press.).

In addition to strengthening the language among their members, LBB is increasingly providing a unique international platform to disseminate other local language revitalisation initiatives. Modern Balinese writers and their supporters are beginning to announce and provide links to their works on LBB. Members of organisations that are trying to keep Balinese script strong and to maintain a forceful community of Balinese language teachers are also increasingly using LBB to share ‘real news’ among LBB’s light banter.


I have focused on the Facebook group, LBB, to explore whether LBB and social media groups can dynamically encourage the use of Balinese regardless of and apart from official state policies, family norms, and global pressures. By analysing postings of the LBB group and through discussions with members of the group and with people who chose not to join the group, I paid particular attention to the ability of LBB and similar social media initiatives to encourage teens and young adults to use Balinese whenever they want to about issues that matter to them, thereby increasing the likelihood that they would carry on the language within their own and to future generations.

What I found is that LBB is helping to revitalise Balinese in a similar way to how shadow puppet plays are used to raise up political issues in Bali. ‘In many situations [in the shadow puppet plays] the lowly servants are revealed through their joking and comic observations to be wiser than their aristocratic masters, who need and rely on them in spite of their lowly status’ (Jenkins 2010Jenkins, Ron. 2010. Rua Bineda in Bali: Counterfeit Justice in the Trial of Nyoman Gunarasa. Den Pasar: Indonesia University of the Arts., 35). LBB is not polished, organically develops, and appears quite frivolous. But with its light and whimsical and sometimes crude and comical ways, LBB and other Facebook groups are creating space in the shadows for minority languages to be used 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, regardless of official policies, school practices, and family norms, as social media perhaps becomes the beacon – not the feared death knell – for linguistic resilience into the next generation.

AcknowledgementsI would like to thank Novi Djangkuak for her help and enthusiasm researching this paper. I would also like to express my appreciation to the following for their insights, inspiration, experience, and encouragement during the course of this research, though any errors are my own: I Gde Nala Antara, David Crystal, Joel Kuipers, Alexander Dent, Richard Fox, Made Wijaya, Bernard Spolsky, John U. Wolff, Mas Ruscitadewi, Purnawan I Kadek, Thomas Hunter, Adrian Vickers, Garrett Kam, Shweta Krishnan, Douglas Kammen, Sarah Maxim, Rucina Ballinger, Tanvi Nagpal, Ron Jenkins, Amrih Widodo, Putu Wijaya, Agung Rai, Kamal El-Wattar, Putu Menaka, Ayu Mandala, Agus Putu Pranayoga, Edmundo Luna, Amy Kates, Ami Amitie, Budi Utami, Suka Ardiyasa, Sugi Lanus, Jack Blaylock, Desy Apriliani, Ika Inggas, Kadek Wardika, Banjar Bali USA, KBRI DC, members and administrators of Lestarikan Bahasa Bali, and always, Louis Boorstin.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.