Our Language is Sweet and Good

Passing on his community’s language and culture is a driving passion for Heronimus (Roni) Bani, a teacher and champion of language development in the Amarasi language community of Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara Province. Roni has served as a teacher in the local elementary school since 1994, where he is currently teaching 4th grade. While Roni recognizes value in students becoming fluent in the national language, he has seen firsthand how students respond with interest and excitement when the language they speak at home is used in the classroom:

When using Indonesian, it is true that the children understand. But for them to communicate back to us in Indonesian, that is a real problem. But when I use the local language, contrary to what you might expect, it draws them in and they are eager to talk. So we do use Indonesian as the official language. But in general it is as if the lesson does not reach the children, so that is why we accompany it in succession with the Amarasi language.

Parents are also supportive: a number have come to him to express their approval and request that the local language continues to be used in classroom instruction.

Roni is active in strengthening local language and cultural traditions in the classroom and beyond. He is the author of several Amarasi children's books on local history and co-author of a series of trilingual books for adults. He also serves as an elder in his church, a member of the team compiling a dictionary and translating the New Testament into Amarasi. In their home, Roni and his family speak both Amarasi and Kupang, his wife’s mother tongue.

Roni’s vision is to keep his language in active use and to keep the community’s cultural traditions alive for future generations. He has made it a special focus to teach local children to become skilled in cultural traditions such as a'a sramat, a ceremonial greeting in poetic parallelisms for specific ritual occasions with a leader and a choral response. Roni has composed original works in this style and often incorporates this traditional poetic parallelism in prayers, such as a marriage blessing, making it something special and beautiful for the whole community.

  local school children

Above: Roni shares a wedding prayer in the traditional poetic style; to welcome a visitor, local schoolchildren (led by student Yedida Ora) demonstrate their skill in performing an original composition in the traditional poetic style known as a'asramat.

In addition to his activities in the community, Roni has taken advantage of several opportunities to travel abroad to gain skill in language documentation. He also feels strongly about developing a writing system for Amarasi, recognizing that having a writing system is a major support to language vitality:

Now if we just speak it, it is sweet and good. But if we don't write it, eventually it will become increasingly murky and thin, to the point that it disappears. Now, the experts who have figured out how to write their language, they move ahead and make quick progress. On the other hand, those of us who just keep talking and talking, the wind blows it away and leaves us with nothing. We talk on and on, and that is all there is. Whereas those who speak and write their languages, later on, there is still something left to show for it. There are footprints.

Related: "From Generation to Generation: Passing on a Thriving Heritage"