Back to basics of Bahasa

Indonesian to English dictionaries are used each lesson at the AIAV language class. Photo by Brooke Grebert-Craig.
Enrolments in Bahasa Indonesia classes are at record low in Victoria. Brooke Grebert-Craig reports on why this language is so important.


On a cold, rainy evening in the suburban streets of Hawthorn, Ibu Nani Pollard slowly walks down the corridors to the very last classroom on the Melbourne University campus.

“Kelas akan dimulai pada lima, empat, tiga, dua, satu…” Ibu Nani says, telling her small class of five that the lesson with begin soon.

Comprehension articles and vocabulary sheets are handed around the table however doubts are made as to whether this advanced class actually needs them.

The mature aged students, consisting of two males and three females, confidently chat to one another in Bahasa Indonesian as Ibu Nani continues to explain what the class will be learning today. Her soft tone compliments her fast paced speech and her broad smile conveys her enthusiasm for the language.

Worksheet and vocabulary lists are handed out to Ibu Nani’s advanced class every lesson. Photo Brooke Grebert-Craig
Worksheet and vocabulary lists are handed out to Ibu Nani’s advanced class every lesson. Photo by Brooke Grebert-Craig.

“When I arrived in Australia we were pushed to learn more Indonesian [to teach] as the knowledge of the language was really small,” says Ibu Nani.

Ibu Nani was born in Indonesia and migrated to Australia to marry her husband Mr Pollard. Not only can she speak five languages including Dutch, Sudanese and German but she has been teaching Bahasa for more than 20 years at the Australian Indonesian Association of Victoria language school.

The AIAV was established in 1956 to promote friendship, understanding and good relations between the people of Indonesia and Australia. It holds weekly classes ranging from beginners to advanced speakers.

“As an Australian, it is so important to learn Bahasa as there shouldn’t be a misunderstanding between the two countries [in regards to] the government and the people. If you learn a language you will understand the culture better. We need to go back to the basics,” says Ibu Nani.

Editor in education publishing and student of Ibu Nani’s advanced class, Steve Dobney starting learning Indonesian in Year 9 back in the 1970’s. “I chose it in preference to the two other subjects that were offered, French and German, probably because it seemed more exotic and not too difficult. Australia should have a much stronger relationship with our nearest Asian neighbour, and at AIAV we are doing our bit to build and maintain that relationship,” says Dobney.

In Jakarta, Atma Jaya Catholic University of Indonesia student, Rafika Moeljosantoso believes that the significance for Australians to learn Bahasa Indonesian is high. Growing up in the capital city of Indonesia, Moeljosantoso has seen how foreigners have used their Bahasa skills to tighten the relationship between the two countries.

“Australia and Indonesia are located near each other which automatically leads to interaction and cooperation between the two countries. Learning each other’s language will help develop an even better interaction and cooperation,” says Moeljosantoso.

However, research conducted by the Asia Education Foundation shows that foreign language learning has the lowest enrolments nationally, with only 11 per cent of senior secondary students choosing to study a language in addition to English.

In correlation to this research, Murdoch University conducted a study that highlights the reasons why students are choosing not to learn Bahasa Indonesian. The decline of interest relates to numerous factors. Firstly, since the drop in growth and investment, Indonesia is believed to be economically irrelevant thus resulting in less employment opportunities for Indonesian speakers. Secondly, there is a physical inaccessibility to Indonesia due to terrorism from the Bali Bombings in 2002. Thirdly, prejudice views of Indonesia being aggressive, violent and corrupt hinder people from learning the language and lastly, there is a lack of federal funding.

20-year-old Deakin University student Tamar Haigazian, chose to study Indonesian for a semester in university after enjoying learning it in high school. Studying Law, she believed it would be a beneficial asset for future job opportunities working overseas.

Haigazian believes that it’s a “great language” to know due to Australia and Indonesia being close neighbours. However, Haigazian stopped learning Bahasa after her first year as she felt she “wasn’t learning enough to be able to actually use the language in a practical way.”

“Indonesian always took a backset to my law degree so I didn’t have enough time to revise it. I also didn’t find the Indonesian program at Deakin to be particularly great. After speaking to a lecturer, he said the number of students studying Indonesian is decreasing and so is the quality of the teaching,” says Haigazian.

Even though Haigazian found Indonesian quite easy to understand and learn she believes she there is little use for it in her future. “I think there are other languages that may be more beneficial to learn with the way the world is heading. Learning Chinese or Arabic definitely opens up a lot more opportunities for working overseas than Indonesian does,” says Haigazian.

Moeljosantoso couldn’t agree more. “I think there is a decline of Bahasa leaners because it is not an international language as the language can only be used in Indonesia,” says Moeljosantoso

This came into consideration for 19 year-old Anthony Lucarelli when he was choosing his secondary education subjects. “I decided to learn a European language based on the fact it would be more beneficial in several countries rather than just one. I also decided to learn Italian as my grandparents were born in Italy and migrated to Australia. We have a closer connection to Europe rather than Indonesia,” Lucarelli says.

Thus, due to the numerous factors concerning accessibility, relevance, security and funding, there is a decline of people learning Bahasa in Australia. Although, people still do believe that the language is important to learn due to our close connections with Indonesia.

“It can only strengthen and repair the relationship and close a cultural gap between the countries,” says Ibu Nani.

As the lesson draws to a close, Ibu Nani thanks all of her students for attending the evening class. She leaves with a smile on her face knowing that she will be back next week, teaching a language that is close to her heart.


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