Calling on more Australian high school students to learn Indonesian Bahasa
Tom Mack is studying Bahasa Indonesian at Darwin High School, but he’s not studying the language with a vacation in Bali in mind.
- The number of students studying Indonesian Bahasa has declined over a school generation
- Academics renewed calls for more students to learn Indonesian language and culture
- Despite the national trend, educators say there is strong interest in studying Indonesian in Darwin
Instead, Tom is intrigued by the parallels between Indonesian culture and his own native Australian heritage.
Man Warrumungu Walpiri, who grew up in Tennant Creek and later Darwin, said he also enjoys studying the language because of the Northern Territory’s ties to Indonesia.
Tom is part of a shrinking cohort of Australian students who choose to learn Indonesian in high school – Grade 12 enrollments have declined by 50% in a school generation, according to the Asia Education Foundation (AEF ).
That’s why AEF at the University of Melbourne this week renewed its calls for a national push for more high school students to learn Indonesian.
AEF has launched a new guidance document ‘Rationale for Indonesian Language and Studies in Australian Education’, which highlights four reasons why studying Indonesian is important in schools Australian: proximity, mastery of the language, creativity and sustainability.
AEF Executive Director Hamish Curry said Australians would find it difficult to manage their relationship with one of the major Asian players without Indonesian language and cultural skills.
The AEF is also calling for a national plan to consolidate data on high school enrollment in Indonesian studies, as there is no data collected at all levels of the year, in all states and territories.
“It’s very difficult to make long term plans that actually create fundamental change, unless you have the data,” Mr. Curry said.
The scant data collected – by the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority – shows that only 755 students studied Indonesian in grade 12 in 2019 – a 50% drop between 2006 and 2019.
An independent study carried out in 2021 by Michelle Kohler, researcher in applied linguistics and languages, indicates that the number of students studying Indonesian in 2016 in all states and ACT increased from 14,418 in the last year of school primary to only 353 in year 12.
“Darwin is closer to Denpasar than to Melbourne”
Kirrilly McKenzie, one of the Indonesian language teachers at Haileybury Rendall School in Darwin, said Top End students often have practical motivations for learning Indonesian.
“Students inherit livestock farms and must be proficient in Indonesian, [some] have Indonesian family and friends and want to communicate with them, ”she said.
“[Others] travel frequently to Indonesia before the pandemic and can see the impact and importance of learning in real life [this] Tongue.”
The AEF newspaper noted: “Indonesia is our immediate neighbor – Darwin is closer to Denpasar than to Melbourne.
“But regular polls show Australians lack even basic knowledge about Indonesia – for example, that it is a democracy and one of the largest in the world.”
Ms McKenzie said she was seeing more students in Darwin choosing to take the course.
“I have certainly seen an increase in the number in every school I have taught.”
Australians should look to Indonesia for business opportunities
The AEF rationale calls on Australians to “take another look at Indonesia”, the world’s fifth largest economy, for future business opportunities.
Tom Mack’s classmate Luke Molinaro in grade 10 lives on a cattle farm in the Northwest Territories and knows how important knowledge of the Indonesian language and culture is to the business from his family.
“I hope this will give me the skills to navigate the Australia-Indonesia relationship in terms of livestock trade, but also the opportunity to travel and study,” he said.
Nathan Franklin, a lecturer in Indonesian studies at Charles Darwin University, said studying languages could help improve international relations.
“I see Indonesian is very important to Australia in terms of foreign policy, but we are not engaging enough with them. We could do a lot better,” he said.
“If we had better relationships and a better perception of Indonesian, then the ripple effect would be things like the general public having a better opinion of Indonesia.”
Ann Tan, who has taught Indonesian at St John’s Catholic College in Darwin for over 30 years, said people-to-people ties with Indonesia have supported the study of languages at school.
“The interest in learning a language is still there, but because we have a large cohort of international students from Indonesia, Indonesian will continue to be taught,” she said.
“In the Northern Territory, we are closest to Indonesia.
“It makes sense that we actually understand their language, speak their language and know their culture.”