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Look who’s talking: Indonesian in Australia

A TV ad featuring an Australian woman travelling to Bali and falling for a Balinese man captures Australia’s love affair with Indonesia. EPA/Made Nagi

Recently, Indonesian language has begun to make an appearance in Australian popular media. There is evidence too that, after years of decline, student interest in Indonesian language and studying in Indonesia is on the rise.

International comparisons suggest that popular culture and language learning may be connected. Bollywood cinema has spread Hindi through India more successfully than the shambolic national language policy. Some argued that the growth of interest in Japanese in the 1980s was fuelled by the global rise of manga comics.

More recently, Korean pop music and video games have driven interest in Korean language in Australia.

Rhonda and Ketut

Over the past three years, one of Australia’s largest insurance companies, AAMI, has run a series of ads featuring an average Australian woman, Rhonda, who travels to Bali and falls for handsome Ketut.

The ads captured Australia’s love affair with Bali. More broadly, they tapped into Australia’s affection for Indonesia and Indonesians living in Australia.

In the final episode, to Ketut’s declaration of love in Indonesian, Rhonda responds in a broad Australian accent: “saya cinta kamu” (“you too”). The episode underlines a phrase that Australian girls learn on a visit to Bali – “saya cinta kamu” (I love you) – but shows too that Rhonda doesn’t quite know what the words mean.

AAMI’s ‘Rhonda and Ketut’ TV ads were the first to feature Indonesian language in Australian commercials.

As far as we can tell, this was the first time that Indonesian has been used in an Australian television ad. These ads seemed to simultaneously “normalise” Bali holidays and the use of Indonesian language and cross-cultural miscommunication as part of the everyday experience of Australians.

Indonesian featured in Australian TV series

In addition to the Rhonda and Ketut ads, the successful ABC series Rake also presented characters speaking Indonesian.

In episode seven of series three, broadcast in March this year, main character Cleaver Greene’s ex-wife Wendy suffers an emotional shock and loses her ability to speak English.

Propelled by memories of “Seminyak years ago”, whenever the ex-hippy opens her mouth, words come out in fluent Indonesian, albeit with a rather cute Australian accent. The series’ creators used subtitles for Wendy’s Indonesian until they introduced the daughter of Wendy’s therapist as her interpreter in episode eight.

The ethnicity of the therapist is not clear in the series. The daughter is Indonesian-looking and speaks fluent English with an Australian accent.

By episode eight, Wendy has become quite a celebrity in Indonesia. The Indonesian media send film crews to interview her, paying $50,000 for the privilege. Cleaver is perplexed. “There’s 250 million people there speaking [it] – why are they getting excited about one more?” he grumbles.

It is a somewhat ridiculous sub-plot, though not entirely out of character with the inanity of the series. Wendy loses her inexplicable Indonesian ability when her emotional turmoil is resolved and she reverts to speaking English.

We never learn whether she had previously learnt or spoken Indonesian, or whether she ever spoke it again. But for a moment in the fantasy of Australian television, Indonesian is spoken with consummate ease by a white middle-aged Australian mum.

Indonesian in Australian universities

The period between 2001 and 2010 was marked by a dramatic decline in interest in Indonesian language in Australian universities. Enrolments dropped by 37% that decade, followed by five years of flat-lining. But now more Australian students are heading to Indonesia to study.

The Australian Consortium for “In-Country” Indonesian Studies (ACICIS) has announced the biggest cohort ever (76) for the first semester of 2015. The ACICIS internship program also set a record by sending 74 students to work in Indonesian organisations in January-February 2015. For the same periods in 2014, the figures were 46 and 44 respectively.

Australians who have studied Indonesian in school have a significantly more positive attitude to Indonesia than does the general population. DFAT, CC BY

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s signature New Colombo Plan (NCP) to encourage students to study in Asia is also having an impact. Of the 69 NCP scholarships awarded last week, ten went to students who will study in Indonesia for a semester or more in 2015 – the second-largest number to any single destination, after China.

In the latest round of NCP “mobility grants” (for semester or short-term programs), more than 600 of the estimated 3173 undergraduates funded will go to Indonesia, the largest allocation to any single jurisdiction.

Indonesian language enrolments have always been sensitive both to events in Indonesia and the Australian media’s coverage of those. The 1997 Asian financial crisis triggered falls in enrolment. The Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005 and the rise of militant Islam in Indonesia coloured Australian perceptions of Indonesia and its language.

Such negative images are now receding. Broader public interest has been generated by positive Australian media coverage of Indonesia’s new president, Joko Widodo, a “cleanskin” former furniture exporter from outside the old Jakarta political elite.

There is evidence that Australians who have studied Indonesian in school have a significantly more positive attitude to Indonesia than does the general population.

Indonesian is still one of the top three most-studied languages in Australian schools. While fewer students are continuing Indonesian to Year 12, about 190,000 school students were studying some Indonesian in 2010. No more recent study has been published.

Sadly, Indonesian-language teachers in schools across Australia might not be able to show Rake to their classes, given the M-rating for the constant swearing and frequent sexual references. Wendy does not swear in Indonesian or English, but her young interpreter does take a few liberties in adding swear words in English. No swear words occurred in the Indonesian dialogue.

Interpreting pop culture’s inner message is always fraught. But these episodes of Rake do suggest that Indonesian is easily absorbed, that Indonesians get pretty excited when we speak their language – and that it may even be quite lucrative.

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