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Only 0.34% of year 12s study Indonesian. Here are 3 steps we can take towards knowing our neighbour better

Visiting Jakarta this week, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Australia and Indonesia are linked not just by geography, but by choice.

Choosing to know Indonesia makes good sense for Australia. Not only is Indonesia our largest neighbour, it is a regional heavyweight and an emerging global power.

Read more: It's great Albanese is in Indonesia, but Australia needs to do a lot more to reset relations. Here are 5 ways to start

Indonesia has a fast-growing economy and a young population more than ten times that of Australia. Creativity and innovation are hot – like the bamboo bicycle our PM rode while meeting Indonesian President Jokowi.

Although using bamboo for bikes was common in the 19th century, they quickly went out of fashion in favour of metal. With the emergence of the green movement in Indonesia, bamboo was considered again. With its combination of durability and high flex, bamboo is great for bikes. These bikes are produced locally and aim to empower villages as sustainable producers.

Indonesia’s growing creativity in digital and social innovation does not just stop at bikes. There are all sorts of future opportunities for collaboration with young Australians in business, in caring for the environment and in creating popular culture.

Read more: 'Where have all you Australians gone?' Australia's shrinking role in cultural diplomacy

Young Australians aren’t learning about Indonesia

Unfortunately, most young Australians may not benefit from such opportunities to work together with our largest neighbour because they have little chance to learn anything about Indonesia at school.

Only 755 students across Australia studied Indonesian language in year 12 in 2019. That’s 0.35% of year 12 students, or one in every 290. In comparison almost 4,000 students studied French that year.

A 2021 report, Indonesian Language Education in Australia: Patterns of Provision and Contending Ideologies, found:

“Currently, there is no national policy for language education, Asian or otherwise, no reporting requirements, and no centrally collected data. In effect, the data currently available about the teaching of languages including Indonesian is in a more parlous state than it was a decade ago. In the case of Studies of Asia, even less is currently known as there is no data collected on this aspect of education.”

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

Recent research on the state of Indonesian in our schools points to declining numbers as a result of xenophobia. This stems from limited understanding and negative perceptions of Indonesia among Australians.

We urgently need to rethink what we teach our young people about Indonesia.

In the 1970s Australia was a world leader in teaching Indonesian in schools and universities. There was a resurgence of interest in the mid-1990s, as a result of the federal Labor government’s investment in a national strategy for Asian languages and studies. Ever since then Indonesian language learning in schools and Indonesian studies in universities have been going backwards.

Read more: Axing protection for national strategic languages is no way to build ties with Asia

After a decade of neglect by the Coalition government, beyond the numbers of students studying Indonesian in year 12, we have no data on how many Australian students study Indonesian at school. This means we do not know how bad the situation is.

It’s not just about language. Integrating studies of Indonesia into history, geography, literature and the arts is possible in the Australian Curriculum through the cross-curriculum priority of Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia. So it’s not a case of asking schools and teachers to add yet another new thing to the curriculum.

For example, for students of geography and science, Indonesia’s rich biodiversity means it is a “megadiverse” country. It’s home to 16-17% of the world’s reptile and bird species.

And Indonesia’s location on the Pacific Ring of Fire makes it a hotspot for volcanoes and earthquakes. Instead of learning about Mt Etna or Vesuvius, Australian children could be learning about Mt Tambora and Merapi.

We owe it to our young people to know Indonesia. Picture a better future where our scientists, engineers, artists and entrepreneurs can open the door to dynamic collaboration on climate change, sustainability, peace and prosperity in our part of the world.

Read more: 'Mutual respect and genuine partnership': how a Labor government could revamp our relationship with Indonesia

What can the government do to build this relationship?

Here are three choices the new federal government could make right now to make this future a reality:

  1. Expand the extraordinary possibilities of digitally connecting young Indonesians and Australians in years 8-10. They could work collaboratively on projects of mutual and global importance including democracy, sustainability, youth culture, technology, mental health and well-being. Engaging students will support studies of Indonesia and Indonesian language – especially at this point in schooling where most students drop out of studying Indonesian.

  2. Convene an urgent national summit to generate solutions to the Indonesian language crisis in Australian schools. There hasn’t been national co-operation on languages education in schools for ten years.

  3. Support school leaders to better understand the importance of Indonesia and Australia’s relationship. The commitment of school leaders is essential if studies of Indonesia and Indonesian language are to grow in our schools.

Australia and Indonesia can do and learn so much together to create a shared future. Let’s make the choice to do that now.

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