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Indonesians of Chinese descent pray in a temple in Tangerang, Banten. ANTARA FOTO/Ismar Patrizki/Koz/hp/09.

Indonesia tries to embrace Chinese language but problems persist

With China’s growing global clout, many people around the world are increasingly realising the importance of understanding China better.

In countries where China’s investments are expanding such as South Korea and Africa, interest in learning Chinese is booming. They believe mastering the language will help them understand Chinese norms, culture and policies, which will help them to interact with China.

This, however, has not happened in Indonesia, where China’s foothold has grown exponentially in recent years.

Failing to understand China’s national language (Mandarin) will prevent Indonesia from taking the full benefits from its economic relationship with China, Indonesia’s top trading partner and largest investor.

Chinese language problems in Indonesia

Indonesia is home to around 7 million ethnic Chinese people or 3.3% of the total population.

Despite some progress promoting Chinese language in Indonesia, the country has been unable to create an environment conducive to learning Chinese — due to mostly political reasons.

It began with Indonesia’s New Order authoritarian regime under president Suharto, who decided to freeze ties with China in 1967, in an effort to contain the spread of communism.

Suharto issued various policies to clamp down Chinese language schools and Chinese language newspapers. He also issued a regulation to force naturalisation of Chinese descendants, which led to decades of stigmatisation. This resulted in a decrease in Chinese language ability among Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese because they believed learning the language would not be useful .

The fourth Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid abolished the discriminative policy 1999.

Afterwards, there was an initial rush to learn the Chinese language.

Private schools started Chinese language lessons. Some schools offer curriculum using Indonesian, English and Chinese. They are called trilingual schools. Some offer tuition classes.

Students in Papua learn a Chinese traditional dance. FOTO ANTARA/Anang Budiono/ss/ama/12

These education institutions have become important actors in spreading and growing the Chinese language in Indonesia.

However, Indonesia’s educational system for Chinese language has not met the international standard. China’s official state agency has administered Chinese language competence, called Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK). However, this has not been followed thoroughly in Indonesia.

Willy Berlian, Chairman of Indonesian Federation of Chinese Education has said that even though the formal school system has added Chinese language education and listed Chinese language under foreign language teaching, fully integrating Chinese language education into the Indonesian education system remains difficult. That’s due to no rules or standards being applied by Chinese language institutions in Indonesia, meaning many people simply muddle through.

In addition, the lack of teaching staff has also hampered teaching Chinese language in public schools.

The government’s inadequate efforts to promote Chinese language

Until 2005, there were no universities in Indonesia that had a Chinese language teacher education program.

The government’s regulation requires an university to have a minimum of six lecturers with a master’s qualification in Chinese language education.

As long as universities do not provide Chinese language education study programs, it’s hard for Indonesia to produce Chinese language teachers.

Supported by the Chinese community in Indonesia, Indonesia’s Ministry of Education has tried to increase the number of Chinese language courses in different formal education institutions in various provinces.

The number of Chinese language courses has been growing rapidly. From four big cities, namely Jakarta, Surabaya in East Java, Bandung in West Java, and Medan in North Sumatra in 2000, it spread to 20 provinces in Indonesia in 2019.

The Indonesian government has also tried to send teaching staff to China to attend training in teaching Chinese language and invited Chinese instructors to Indonesia.

However, this was not very successful as schools have to pay visa fees for hiring new teachers, and many schools cannot afford the cost.

Nanchang University (NCH) President, Zhou Wenbin, gives a speech during the opening of Mandarin Language Centre in Hasanuddin University in Makassar, South Sulawesi. ANTARA FOTO/Sahrul Manda Tikupadang/ed/pd/11

Things only gradually began to change when an initiative formed under cooperation between Chinese and Indonesian educational institutes, called Confucius Institutes (CI), was established for the first time in 2011.

They teach Chinese language, train teachers or prospective teachers, and carry out HSK tests.

The CI opens opportunities for Indonesian universities to partner with Chinese universities to open undergraduate programs in Chinese language.

It also offers scholarships for Indonesians to learn Chinese language in China, so when they return, they can teach.

However, many of those returning from China prefer instead to work Chinese companies, which pay them double than being teachers.

Although the scholarship contract stipulates that they have to teach Chinese language on their return, many students do not fulfil the contract and choose to join Chinese companies instead.

A wake up call

It is crucial to recognise the importance of overcoming linguistic-cultural barriers in Indonesia-China relations.

By understanding the language, Indonesia would have more people acquainted with Chinese societal norms and customs, methods of doing business and national and institutional interests.

This could result in a more appropriate formulation of policy towards China, which then eventually lead to the more fruitful relations between both countries.

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