Students like learning Indonesian (Mahasiswa Suka Bahasa Indonesia)

Grade 2 student with Indonesian workbook. Photo by Madeleine Neale.
Even though over 47,000 students are learning Indonesian in Victorian primary schools, only 16,000 continue studying the language in secondary schools, writes Madeleine Neale.


William Hopkinson remembers the distinct smell of Asian cuisine as it filled the school classroom. His grade, 2A at Patterson Lakes Primary School, had just learnt how to make their own very mild version of a popular dish, nasi goreng, as an introduction to the Indonesian language. Before the meal could be eaten, the eager seven and eight year-olds had to recite the numbers from one to 20 back to the teacher in order to receive their bowl.

Little did this young boy know that learning to cook this traditional dish, known to westerners as fried rice, way back in 2005 would be the start of a close relationship between him and one of Australia’s neighbouring countries.

Flash forward 11 years and the now 18-year-old is finishing  his first year at Melbourne University where he is undertaking a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in international studies and politics. After completing six years of Indonesian at secondary school and a year at university level, William Hopkinson has clearly advanced from counting to 20 and learning the names of colours of the rainbow.

“I really enjoy being able to speak and think in a different language,” Hopkinson says. “I’ve even dreamed in another language. If I’m studying a lot of Indonesian, during that night my dreams will feature words and sayings from the language.”

William Hopkinson with his host mother in Indonesia
William Hopkinson with his host mother in Indonesia.

According to the Victorian State Government’s language provision report, 259 government primary schools but only 95 secondary schools offered Indonesian as part of their course in 2015. These statistics show that while over 47,000 children undertook Bahasa Indonesia up until grade six, only 16,000 students continued to study the language at a secondary school level.

Mentone Primary School in suburban Melbourne continues to teach Indonesian despite the lack of secondary schools including it in their curriculum. The school no longer has a separate teacher who specialises in the language. Instead each teacher integrates Indonesian into their normal class programs.

However, this was not always the case. Cath Beaumont, Mentone Primary School’s LOTE (Language other than English) teacher for 10 years says the school first started teaching Indonesian because it was taught at lot of the local high schools. “I think our system is working at the moment because it has to,”Beaumont says. “It’s a budget thing, we don’t have enough money to have all the specialists. I know the staff at the school would love to see a LOTE teacher rather than have to do it themselves.”

Even though the class scheduling has changed, Indonesian is still considered an important part of their studies. “For me it’s the proximity to Indonesia. I just think it’s so much more relevant to know our neighbour’s language than somebody who’s way over in Europe.”

And it’s no surprise that when the kids are asked who’s been to Bali before, almost half of the hands in the class shoot up into the air. With Indonesia being the second most visited country for Australian holiday goers after New Zealand, these kids get to see the language they have learnt in action.

“As a mother, my children learnt Indonesian and I know that when we have been travelling, the kids have loved being able to talk to the taxi drivers and in Bali you know they love to barter,” Beaumont says.

Grade two student Peter believes there are advantages learning Indonesian for his future career. “Knowing Indonesian would be good, say, if I couldn’t be a soccer player, and I was working in a café instead and an Indonesian person came in and couldn’t speak English, I could talk to them.”

For Elsie, another grade two student, a love of animals could see her pursue a career in a foreign country such as Indonesia in the future. “If there were not enough places to be a vet in Australia, I would probably go to Indonesia and be a vet there.”

But with few Victorian high schools offering Indonesian, there may not be a chance for students such as Elsie and Peter to further their understanding of the culture and language.

William Hopkinson’s local secondary school offered Indonesian as a subject, allowing him to develop his skills and become involved in various Indonesian activities. These included speaking competitions and two exchange programs that saw him host an Indonesian student as well as spending six weeks in Indonesia living with a host family.

“The host family didn’t speak much English, which forced me to really learn,” Hopkinson says. “It was like do or die really, learn it or don’t say anything. You come off a lot dumber than you actually are and it’s frustrating when you have to speak so simply when in your mind you’re trying to ask more difficult questions.”

To overcome these barriers, Hopkinson had a little notepad on which he would write down words he didn’t know and try to learn them that day. “Living with my host brother proved to be a remarkable experience as we would often stay up during the night discussing our cultural differences, quirks in our languages, Indonesian history and contemporary issues.”

Early next year, the University of Melbourne student will return to Indonesia to attend a class run in Denpasar for three weeks with 12 other Australian students and 10 Balinese students analysing concepts and issues of Indonesia.

Hopkinson says that more avenues need to be opened to allow people to see the true benefits a foreign language such as Indonesian can bring. “I think if more people are aware of how interesting learning Indonesian actually is and know the benefits of knowing another language possess, I think more people would pursue it.”

When asked if he had mastered the perfect nasi goreng after all these years, the Melbourne teen shook his head. “No one can make it as good as the Indonesians do!”

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