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Fewer Australians are learning Indonesian, and Indonesia could do far more to fix that

(Wikimedia Commons/Mia Salim), CC BY

For more than two decades, linguists and researchers have observed a decline in Australians’ interest in learning the Indonesian language (bahasa Indonesia).

A 2010 report from a team of Australian applied linguists shows that since 2001, the number of students taking Indonesian language lessons in Australian schools had decreased by at least 10,000 per year.

In their 2021 independent study, linguistics researcher Michelle Kohler from the University of South Australia noted that this dwindling interest also intensified as students progress through the education system: from around 14,000 students learning the language at the end of primary (elementary) school, to only around 350 at the end of high school.

Registrations for Indonesian language courses at the university level in 2019 had plummeted by 63% since its peak in 1992.

The School of Languages in South Australia is one of few remaining institutions still offering Indonesian language courses. (School of Languages), Author provided

To make things worse, in the past few years, many universities in various states such as La Trobe University, Western Sydney University, and the University of New South Wales have closed their Indonesian language courses. The University of Melbourne predicts that by 2020, there will only be 12 universities in Australia offering Indonesian language courses: nearly half that of the 22 universities in 1992.

A number of researchers worry this trend among Australian universities will weaken bilateral ties between the two countries.

However, it’s interesting to note that the concerns are largely coming from parties in Australia, not from Indonesia.

Studies surrounding this topic have all been authored by Australian scholars, along with recommendations for the Australian government to maintain Australians’ interest in the Indonesian language.

It seems that Indonesia has not done much to rekindle Indonesian language learning in Australia, despite arguably having the most to gain – from boosting the country’s image to improving relations with their strategic neighbour.

Why interest is declining

There are a number of reasons that may motivate someone to learn a foreign language. A person’s preference toward a certain language, however, has no relation to whether they find the language attractive.

Social linguists, such as Vineeta Chand from the University of Essex, argue interest in a language is determined more by external factors such as having positive perceptions regarding the language’s native speakers or their culture. This usually relates to the perceived prestige or reputation of the language’s speakers, and the economic benefits or social mobility offered by the mastery of said language.

In the context of Australia, there are a number of reasons why learning Indonesian is important.

Indonesia is one of Australia’s most important neighbours, and is arguably key to the nation’s prosperity and security. The language is also accessible, with a linguistic structure that isn’t too complex for a foreign language, while offering other personal benefits, such as better understanding and literacy of Indonesian culture.

But Australians’ interest in the Indonesian language is prone to external factors.

From an economic perspective, for instance, many Australians still view Indonesia as a relatively “poor” country – even though the Southeast Asian economic giant is poised to be the seventh largest economy in 2030.

From a cultural point of view, Indonesia is also perceived to have a conservative religious identity, which has been somewhat worsened by the Bali Bombings in 2002 and the more recent ones in Jakarta. As Australian researchers have pointed out: “Little is known in the Australian community about the reality of the predominantly moderate and uniquely Indonesian form of Islam.”

A number of Australians have even told me that they are deeply concerned about the recently revised Indonesian Penal Code – largely considered to be antidemocratic and in violation of personal rights. In the eyes of some Australians, this has hurt Indonesia’s image and may have made some people less interested to study Indonesian.

Other political events in the past few decades – from Indonesia’s human rights violations in East Timor, to the waves of asylum seekers traversing the waters between Indonesia and Australia – have further eroded that public image.

A 2007 doctoral dissertation by Yvette Slaughter from the University of Melbourne argued the declining interest of the Indonesian language was an “extreme” example of the effects of political events on foreign language learning.

Indonesia should be more proactive

The research I’ve found on this topic has all been written by Australians, primarily discussing what the Australian government can do.

Indonesians need to do more to show greater concern in this issue. The Indonesian Embassy in Canberra compiled a report on this trend – but unfortunately it was never published.

The declining interest in the Indonesian language must serve as a wake-up call for many Indonesian groups. This includes the Indonesian government and its related ministries, their embassy in Canberra, Indonesian consulates across Australia, along with communities such as the Australia Indonesia Association, Australia Indonesia Youth Association and branches of the Indonesian Student Association in every Australian state and university.

Last October, the consulate in Sydney launched a website for the Indonesian Language and Culture Centre in New South Wales. But these sorts of initiatives to promote bahasa Indonesia have little impact and are not the result of strategic planning.

This is in contrast to the promotional programs done by Alliance Française to promote the learning of the French language in Australia, through its five strategic pillars – including raising awareness among young people and strengthening the appeal of French culture. The Indonesian community can also take inspiration from Greek, Turkish and Vietnamese diaspora communities, which have been much more active in promoting their language through many language events and programs in Australia.

The Indonesian diaspora could be more proactive in promoting the Indonesian language in Australia, such as through IndoFest 2021, pioneered by Indonesians in Adelaide, South Australia. Author provided

Based on my conversations with Michelle Kohler, a colleague at the University of South Australia who also specializes in research about the Indonesian language, another important thing that can be done is improving collaborations between Indonesia and Australia in the production of fiction, TV and films to better introduce Indonesian culture to young people in Australia. Hopefully, this can help address stereotypes regarding Indonesian people and culture, and in turn nudge them to learn the Indonesian language.

Indonesia should feel proud that many Australian linguists and scholars are showing great attention to this problem. However, it should also be ashamed that it hasn’t done as much.

Read more: Closure of Indonesian language programs in Australian universities will weaken ties between the two countries

This article was originally published in Indonesian

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