Indonesian in Australian universities

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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