Illustrated by Diniella Putirani
Illustrated by Diniella Putirani
Language Choice in Social Media: The Case of Instagram
Open and global digital access encourages Indonesian millennials to be avid multilingual users. What can social media linguistic practices tell us about Indonesian digital culture?
Language Choice in Social Media: The Case of Instagram
Open and global digital access encourages Indonesian millennials to be avid multilingual users. What can social media linguistic practices tell us about Indonesian digital culture?

As societies are getting globalised, the English language is gaining more traction in various countries. In Indonesia, people—especially the youth—are getting incresingly enamored with this particular foreign language. From preschool students to teenagers to young adults, Indonesian millennials speak English almost as well as they speak their mother tongue—and in some extreme cases, even more fluently. Fluency in English is starting to be an advantage, or even a necessity, in the modern world and young parents are quickly realizing this. Spend a couple of hours in some upscale shopping mall and look for well-dressed mothers with little kids, and chances are you will be able to see for yourself how English has taken over our young families.

This writing, however, is not concerned with the use of language between kids and parents. Children rarely have the chance to choose which language they are taught to communicate in, while this article aims to examine those who do have the chance to choose between English and Bahasa. Take a look at our young adults. More specifically, take a look at how our college-educated urban youths use languages in their social media.

To investigate the way that Indonesian youngsters use English and Indonesian online, we looked at the Instagram profiles of 6 undergraduate students in the English Department of a well-respected university at one of West Java’s biggest cities. We chose students from the English Department under the assumption (or hope) that they are accomplished users of both Indonesian and English, which means that they always have access to both codes without being hampered by inadequate language skills. We’d like to see, when these youths have equal capabilities in Indonesian and English as well as the privilege to choose between those two languages, which one do they choose to present themselves in on social media and what are the reasons behind that choice?

In total, we looked at 180 Instagram posts, which are the 30 most recent posts from our 6 participants. Looking at that collection, the verdict was overwhelmingly clear: these youths used way more English than Indonesian in their online self-presentation. Out of those 180 posts, we found 145 posts that used English entirely, 16 posts that used a mix of English and Indonesian, and only 11 posts that used Indonesian entirely. The rest are posts that used a mixture of other foreign languages (we found some in Japanese and Italian) or posts without words in their captions.

With this prevalence for English well-established, it’s time to ask the pertinent questions: Why do these Indonesian natives choose to use English? What can this prevalence for English tell us?

The (Overwhelming) Case for Using English

The first thing of note is that when asked why they chose English over Indonesian, they spoke more about the pitfalls of Indonesian rather than the perks of English. One remark that kept being echoed among our participants is that they thought Indonesian was “too much” (“lebay”) and “unrefined” (“alay”). Now, the easiest way to explain away their perceived “crudeness” of Indonesian is by accusing them of being un-nationalistic and not proud of their own culture (the remains of the colonial era). Unfortunately, that kind of explanation could probably be an over-simplification.

By observing and analyzing the various data that we have collected from the posted contents and the interviews, we came up with more complex and interesting possible explanations. One of it, of course, is the use of language to signal different social classes: Indonesian is the language of common Indonesians of the lower socioeconomic class, while English has been appropriated by the well-educated middle and upper socioeconomic classes. By using English, these youth, who were educated in a respected university and are pretty well-off financially, were simply demonstrating the privilege of their education and their belonging to the middle and upper classes.

But there are also other features of the two languages (and languages in general) that we thought might explain their preference for English. First is diglossia in Indonesian. As first proposed by Charles Ferguson in 1959, diglossia is,

a relatively stable language situation in which […] there is a very divergent, highly codified (often grammatically more complex) superposed variety [...] which is learned largely by formal education and is used for most written and formal spoken purposes but is not used by any sector of the community for ordinary conversation.

Indonesian, in its modern form, closely fits this concept of diglossia (Sneddon, 2003). We have formal Indonesian that is taught at schools and used in formal situations but never used in everyday, informal situations. For daily, informal usage—especially in the context of the young urbanites that our participants are—we have the colloquial form of the language, which is popularly known as “gaul Indonesian”. The two varieties of the language are so different, be it in terms of vocabulary, word structure, sentence structure, and usage. Compare words like memberitahu, mengerjakan, and berkata to their colloquial counterparts bilangin, ngerjain, and ngomong respectively. Also take a look at the pronouns saya, aku, Anda, and kamu of formal Indonesian, and their colloquial counterparts gue and lu. These are just some proofs that Indonesian is actually formed by two very different languages.

This diglossia more likely than not has played a part in complicating language choice for our participants and Indonesians in general. When they hit that “compose” button in Instagram, they are faced with a very particular situation (Litt dan Hargittai, 2016). Because of the public nature of social media, there is a pressure for them to present themselves in a good light—in a better light than usual, actually—thus perhaps prompting them to compose in a more orderly language than they would normally use. On the other hand, because of the personal nature of social media, chances are they would also like to present themselves in a relatable way, in a way that is not too far removed from their actual everyday selves.

Therein lies the dilemma. Say it was very imperative for these participants to use Indonesian in their social media posts. They will soon be faced with the options: which variety of Indonesian should they use? On the one hand, colloquial Indonesian will most closely represent their actual everyday selves (not to mention their status as youths), so it fits the “personal” requirement well. However, by presenting themselves in colloquial Indonesian, they also run the risk of presenting themselves in a less-than-flattering light, because of colloquial Indonesian’s place as the lower variety of the language. It is a messier and less standardized variety of it, and does not satisfy the “orderly” requirement that social media self-presentation—essentially public self-presentation—may call for. Furthermore, this diglossic nature of Indonesian may also explain why the participants felt that Indonesian was “too much” and “unrefined” (“lebay” and “alay”). The formal kind is too stiff; the colloquial kind too laid-back and, because of its lower status, too crude. This just adds to another reason why Indonesian may not be well-suited for online self-presentation in social media.

Enter English. Unlike Indonesian, English is not smack in the middle of a diglossia situation (Kaye, 1991). Make no mistake, the language does have varieties, though the variations are nowhere near as pronounced as those of Indonesian. For this reason, we can say that English is more neutral and safe. With Standard English, you cannot go as prim and stiff as formal Indonesian or as unruly and laid-back as colloquial Indonesian (unless you deliberately use forms like “I do solemnly affirm that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States” or “Cash me outside, how ‘bow dah?”). For practicality’s sake, English is therefore more hassle-free and neutral, less risky and dilemmatic.

Diglossia aside, let’s also discuss the classic reason why people use English: it is the global lingua franca. We found this to still be true in the context of the internet, if not doubly true. This should not be a surprise, since it is widely understood that the world wide web deconstructs the boundaries that the physical global world possesses, and thus in the www, “global” is even more global. Upon dissecting the texts of our participants’ Instagram captions, we saw signs that they are acutely aware of this fact, that in making their Instagram posts, their imagined audience is not just their followers, but also the global online community at large.


Figure 1: An Instagram post addressing a global audience.

One sure sign of this is the hashtag. We saw hashtags as an effort made by social media users to be found by people outside of their own immediate circle of followers, to be seen by the global online community (though admittedly the purpose of using hashtags has also evolved beyond simple searchability [Purba, 2017]). By putting common hashtags such as #travel in their Instagram captions, they make sure that their posts are seen when thousands of people all over the world look for travel inspirations on Instagram. And it is not just hashtags. Beyond hashtags, there are also other means to connect yourself to the global conversation. Talking about issues and themes that are pertinent internationally is another way (we saw quite a lot of posts about International Women’s Day, as well as Coldplay lyrics and Marvel references). In this context, naturally English should be the language of choice, since those global strangers probably do not understand Indonesian, and the global web of intertextuality that they snag themselves into is mostly woven in English.

This may also explain why the participants’ preference for English goes against some previously established patterns of language use. For example, Holmes (2008) offered that a communicator tends to use their interlocutor’s native language in order to establish solidarity with them. With this logic, our participants should have used Indonesian in most of their posts, because their immediate audience (their followers) are mostly fellow Indonesians, and their immediate interlocutors, for example, the people they took selfies with, are also Indonesians. However, we found that even posts that are dedicated to their Indonesian friends like birthday wishes and graduation congratulations, or are about their friendships and social life, as opposed to said global feminist movement and Marvel references, are still written in English, which is not the native language of anyone pertinent. One way to make sense of this is that, after all, it is not these friends and followers that the participants were trying to endear themselves to. It is the global community, which is accessible only with English.

The Case for Using Indonesian

Although so far it has seemed like English is the more favored language in almost all occasions, we did find one notable occasion in which Indonesian is consistently preferred: humor. Among all the Instagram posts that we scrutinized, practically all participants have made several posts in which they used Indonesian, or switched from English to Indonesian, in order to create a sense of humor. Here are some examples:

Tired of always standing out, I decided to blend in(to the wall) Also, I’m so photogenic that God knows cumasatu kali take kak. Nobody suffered during the photo shoot.

Bol... Genduttuhbenerannular..Jangan dekat2. I love you.

It seems that even though these bilingual participants are adept at expressing themselves in English, there are still things that they cannot express well in any language other than Indonesian. And it just so happens that one of these things is jokes.

For us, it is no joke that jokes have become closely intertwined with the use of Indonesian. While it is tempting to disregard jokes as something flippant and insignificant, we see that their using Indonesian to convey jokes is actually one of the most important pieces of their self-presentation. Here, jokes in Indonesian are the strongest signifier of their identity as Indonesian urban youths. Jokes are complex things (Muhawi, 1996); they often contain references to a certain way of life, a certain theme from a certain culture. If you do not get the contexts and references surrounding these jokes—if you are not part of the culture from which the jokes came—there’s a good chance that you would not find those jokes funny. By delivering jokes in Indonesian—jokes that can only be delivered in Indonesian—the participants were showing the context and culture that they belong to, which is Indonesian urban youths.

Should the prevalence of English usage in social media be a cause of concern? Whenever a foreign language seems to gain traction in a community with their own native language, some people would start to speak alarmingly of things like linguistic imperialism, language shift, or even language death. For those who have felt alarmed by how Indonesian natives use so much English online, here’s a bit of reassurance that they are still very much Indonesians, and that they are still willing to present themselves as Indonesians.

From our little study so far, we saw that our participants had some degrees of agency in picking their language for their practical ends. Which language is more suited to communicate with the global online community? It’s English, so they use English. Which language is more neutral and less complicated? Probably the non-diglossic English, so they use English. Which language can communicate their kind of jokes? It’s Indonesian, so they use Indonesian. So far, we see that their language use habits do not really reflect a desire to shake away their identity as Indonesians; rather, by using English, they seem to want to expand their identity—to not merely be Indonesians but also young, urban, educated, global Indonesians.

But, in spite of this “agency” aspect exercised by these young Indonesians, we should not ignore the “structural” aspects influencing and directing these agencies in the background.  The English language has made the position as lingua franca as their own for quite a while, and globalization would only serve to cement this domination even further. In today’s global society, fluency in English would be a big benefit to an individual. Unfortunately, such level of fluency would require not a little time and investment, something the middle-lower class don’t often have in abundance. This would widen the gap even further between socio-economical classes. As stated by this article from the New York Times, the Indonesian youth’s infatuation with English could carry some potential problems.

One big caveat, though. We’d like to once again emphasize that our study involves only a tiny slice of Indonesia’s population. Our observations here may apply to the specific demography that we looked at and the specific corner of their existence on their social media profiles, but these observations may not apply to other demography and other situations. Young parents that speak to their children exclusively in English, for example, is an entirely different matter. And so is online social media users outside of the urban Jabodetabek area.

We understand that what we speak of here is just the tip of the iceberg. There are still more questions to be answered. To get a clearer picture of the dynamics between first language and second languages in modern Indonesia, there needs to be more investigations into other aspects of language use, other situations, other language communities. We have only just begun. []


Alan S. Kaye (1991). “Is English diglossic?” English Today, 7, pp 8-14 doi:10.1017/S0266078400005848

Litt, E., &Hargittai, E. (2016). The imagined audience on social network sites. Social Media + Society, 2(1), . doi:10.1177/2056305116633482

Sneddon, J. (2003). “Diglossia in Indonesian”. Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- envolkenkund, 159(4), 519-549.

Holmes, J. (2008). An introduction to sociolinguistics (3rd ed.). Harlow: Pearson


Muhawi, I. (1996). “Language, Ethnicity and National Identity in the Tunisian Ethnic Joke”. In Y. Suleiman (Ed.), Language and Identity in the Middle East and North Africa (pp. 39-60). Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press

Purba, R. A. (2017). Pemilihan Bahasa dan Presentasi Diri dalam Media Sosial Instagram di Kalangan Mahasiswa Program Studi Inggris Universitas Indonesia (Unpublished master's thesis). Universitas Indonesia, Indonesia.


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Rainer Abraham Purba

An English graduate from the University of Indonesia. As an Indonesian studying English, he cares deeply about the dynamics of English and Bahasa usage.

Anselma Widha Prihandita

An English graduate from the University of Indonesia. Interests include science fiction and dystopian studies, gender and sexuality studies, digital rhetoric, and anything about language and literature in general. 


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