Learning Indonesian

Nov 26th, 2007, in IM Posts, Opinion, by

Ausdag explains why learning Indonesian is not popular in Australia.

Why Aren't Australians Learning Indonesian - A Response to "Bahasa Indonesia - Australians Don't Want to Learn Indonesian" (Indonesia Matters November 19th, 2007).

Having studied Indonesian at university level, then in-country and then teaching the language for five and a half years in an Australian primary school I've been exposed to much of the attitudes of many Australians towards Indonesia and Indonesian (mistakenly called 'Bahasa Indonesia' by English speakers; 'Indonesian' is the English term for the language). The particular school I taught Indonesian in had a high representation of Air Force and Army children; the parents of some had served in East Timor. Surprisingly at first, but then encouragingly, it was these parents who most supported the teaching of Indonesian in Australian schools.

However, it is true that since the late 1970s, numbers of tertiary students enrolled in Indonesian language studies has dramatically dropped. Several close friends of mine have taught Indonesian at the tertiary level for the past 20 or so years. We often talk about the perceptions of Australians towards Indonesia.

Contrary to what is claimed in the 'Bahasa Indonesia' article, many of us in the language 'business' firmly believe that perceptions of the general Australian public towards Indonesia are a prime factor in the decline of interest in Indonesian. Almost everything that is reported on Indonesia in the Australian media is 'bad press'; negative publicity on everything from terrorism, corruption, seeming inconsitiencies in the treatent of Australians in the Indonesian courts compared to Indonesian citizens, and that ever-present but more or less simmering below the surface belief, particularly among older generations, that Indonesia will one day attempt to invade Australia (well, we defeated the Japanese, defeated Communism - supposedly, so now we need something else to fear - how about an Indonesian invasion?).

Indonesia doesn't figure very prominently in people's perceptions of economic opportunities. Think foreign investment in Asia and people immediately think of China, Korea and perhaps India. The slow but steady struggle of Indonesia out of the monetary crisis that other countries seemed to recover from far more quickly doesn't help.

For school students - primary and secondary - they just don't have the same level of exposure to Indonesia as they do for Japan, China or Europe. Every Australian student has been a fan of of least one Japanese cartoon on saturday morning TV, they all know about Judo and Karate, they are probably driven around in Japanese cars, and those shops that are popping up here and there that sell Japanese and Korean kitsch items from erasers to Evangelion figurines are very popular. As a primary school teacher of Indonesian, I am constantly asked by my students why they can't learn Japanese instead.

Migration may have something, but not a lot, to do with the language learning situation in Australia. Migrants such as Vietnamese, Lebanese, Greeks, Taiwanese and others feature prominently in Australian society. They tend to form fairly visible communities that colour our cities and add a unique cosmopolitian feel to life.

Indonesian migrants tend to blend more with the wider community. That is also a good thing. They at least avoid Hansonist accusations of forming 'ghettoes' and not wanting to integrate with Australian society. They are less prominent, do not live in certain areas of the city, but when events occur such as Halal-bi-halal and food markets, they all come out of the wood work.

Nevertheless, the teaching of languages of prominent migrant groups such as Vietnamese, Arabic and Greek is also still very limited. Chinese on the other hand is taking off, particularly in schools located in and around the Taiwanese and Hong-Kong 'pockets'.

From the perspective of teachers and language programs, the implementation of travel bans by the Federal Government in the wake of the Bali and Jakarta bombings did not help. Suddenly universities and schools were no longer allowed to send students or teachers to Indonesia for in-country training or professional development. Exchange programs were halted or reduced in terms of time and quality. Indonesian teachers watched as their Japanese and Chinese teaching colleagues were sent overseas for language training, while we had to make do with the odd in-service session here in Australia.

This is not to say that all Australians have negative perceptions of Indonesia. In fact, most Australians, like most Indonesians, have more important issues of putting food on the table and paying the bills to worry about, than worrying about what the news has to say about our nearest neighbour. Most Australians still rate Bali as high-on-the-list holiday destination and most Australians, if given the opportunity, will gladly attend an Indonesian event to enjoy the food and entertainment.

Perhaps it is also up to the Indonesian communities living in Australia to try and increase public awareness of who they are and what they represent. Cultural events are good. Restaurants are also a good thing. Unfortunatly, in my city at least, Indonesian restaurants tend to have a dismal track record. They open up, change management, are expensive, and close down again. In the meantime, the Vietnamese continue to serve up high-quality food, cheaply, under the same management, resulting in long-lasting small-scale restaurants that see their customers coming back again and again. In a city of two million, I can think of only one Indonesian restaurant and two smaller 'snack-bar' operations, compared to 30 or so Vietnamese restaurants. In fact, as a student of Indonesian in the late 1980s, our class usually had to resort to going to a Malaysian restaurant for a bit of cultural exposure as there were no Indonesian restaurants available.

Having said all that it should also be noted that Australians in general have a very low interest in a serious study of any foreign language. As an island nation, we tend to be somewhat insular, detached from the wider world. We have no bordering neighbours. We do not have a history of foreign occupation, nor do we have a history that demands fluency in a second or third language as is the case in countries such as Switzerland. If we do not have a deeply ingrained perception of the need for a second language, we will not make it a high priority to learn one.

52 Comments on “Learning Indonesian”

  1. avatar ausdag says:

    Hi austag,

    Let’s put this one to sleep because we could debate about it till the cows come home.

    I agree. But my name is ausdag 🙂

    Nice to discuss things with you.



  2. avatar iamisaid says:


    Sincere apology on that mistyping your IM screen name. I am a retired professional, spend lots of my personal time doing humanitarian work in Indonesia. As you can see from my several posts, typo errors are abound. LOL.

    Perhaps, and if you think it is of any worth to pursue this issue or any interesting similar issue further, we could email one another and take this off-line.

    My email address being : iamisaid2007@yahoo.com.

  3. avatar iamisaid says:


    About your classroom issue that you have stated, most of my english grammar knowledge has been decades ago.

    I do recall that there is such a thing as an “adjectival noun” and that it is part and parcel of the English grammar.

    Meaning therefore, that the term, “Bahasa Indonesia” could be a noun as well as an adjectival noun.

    For example, it is explained thus :

    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    Jump to: navigation, search
    Look up Adjectival in
    Wiktionary, the free dictionary.Adjectival may refer to:

    Adjective, a part of speech that modifies a noun or a pronoun

    Adjectival noun or sometimes “adjectival”, a noun that functions as an adjective, especially in Japanese grammar

    Just my 2 cents.

  4. avatar Aluang Anak Bayang says:

    Why care about Bahasa Melayu being official language of Indonesia, when Bahasa Jovo should be the appropriate language for the nusantara? Just because a bunch of Sumatran Melayu speakers knew how to rub on the good side of their colonial masters, Javanese was cast aside in favour of Melayu.

  5. avatar iamisaid says:

    Hi Alaung Anak Bayang,

    Yes, why care about Bahasa Melayu?

    I’d go along with anything, Bahasa Jovo or whatever, provided I do not end up with a fresh round of discussion with ausdag. (LOL, only joking)

  6. avatar ausdag says:

    Hi iamisaid,

    Thank you for your email address. It would be interesting to discuss things further with you, although perhaps this particular topic has run its course.

    On Adjectival nouns, yes, you could say that Bahasa Indonesia could function as an adjective, but I can imagine a constant barrage of questions from my students –

    “Sir, why do you say Bahasa Indonesia grammar? Shouldn’t it be ‘bahasa IndonesiaN grammar’, because when you describe things as being from Indonesia, aren’t you supposed so say it’s ‘Indonesian’ bla…bla..bla….” 🙂

    From that perspective, it’s far easier to simply apply the term ‘Indonesian’.

    Similarly, for languages that are termed using the native, non-English terms such as Tagalog, or Hokkien, we face another dilemma – what is the correct adjectival form? We usually handle that one somewhat awkwardly by adding suffixes such as -ese or -nese to come up with terms such as –

    Tagalogese nouns, Hokkienese verb forms etc.

    Woops…sorry, I see I’m harping on again. 🙂

    Thanks again for everyone’s input.

  7. avatar Arema says:

    Whoa, friends, please… if you think it over again, actually we don’t need to debate until such an extent about such a trivial manner. Both of you have a correct point actually.

    iamisaid is correct to say that the usage of the word ‘Indonesian’ is unsuitable to describe the official language of Indonesia. The more proper term would be ‘Bahasa Indonesia’, or (I’m being negotiable here) a different word than the word that is used to describe the citizen of Indonesia.

    But, ausdag is also correct by saying that ‘Indonesian’ is currently the widely accepted term to describe Indonesian language, and sad to say ‘Bahasa Indonesia’ fall behind in the popularity order, even losing to ‘Bahasa’. No matter how iamisaid argued, ausdag is correct by saying that ‘Indonesian’ is the correct term, and also at the same time powerless to change it. But like ausdag said, language do evolve, so this word may change in the future, we hope it does, for the sake of correctness.

    If English have no problem in adopting words like Durian, Rambutan, Orang Utan, Samurai, Ninja, coup d’etat, burrito, pizza, etc… I don’t see why it can’t adopt ‘Bahasa Indonesia’…. someday.

  8. avatar nenek sihir says:

    Just read your blog ausdag-agree that ‘Bahasa,’ when used by Indonesians to talk about Indonesian, is generaly something picked up from hanging around foreigners. A friend of mine learning the language from a university educated Jakartan was told this was an acceptable alternative ‘because a lot of foreigners use it.’ (!?) However IMO the vast majority of Indonesians would be very confused by ‘Bisa bicara bahasa?’ or ‘Saya bisa bicara bahasa.’

  9. avatar iamisaid says:

    Arema, Arema, how can it (“Indonesian”) be correct just because { ‘Indonesian’ is currently the widely accepted term to describe Indonesian language}?

    Remember there was a time when the world was believed to be flat? No, let me rephrase that, there was a time when it was widely accepted that the world was flat?

    (And please, no inference that I am some modern day Galileo with regards to the word “Indonesian” being incorrect to mean Bahasa Indonesia)

    If I asked a person if he spoke Indonesian, that person may understand that I mean Bahasa Indonesia. (because he is one of those who widely accepts “Indonesian” to mean Bahasa Indonesia.

    If I asked the same question to someone else, that person may think that I mean any of the various languages that Indonesians speak. To which that person could return a question by asking me, “Which one?”

    In my country (and it is not Indonesia where I live) “Indonesian” is not used to refer to Bahasa Indonesia. We say Bahasa Indonesia.

    Hence, just how wide is wide when expressing “widely accepted”?

  10. avatar Pakmantri says:

    I think you should apply for a job at Microsoft, because you like to make simple things complicated! 🙂

    I am Indonesian, and in Indonesia we have bahasa Indonesia, bahasa Jawa, bahasa Sunda, bahasa Batak, bahasa Padang, bahasa Bugis and many other bahasa. We even call English language as bahasa Ingris or Dutch as bahasa Belanda etc.

    It is clear to me that bahasa translate to language in English. I am no academia but it looks that simple to me. If you want to be correct use “bahasa Indonesia” as what the Indonesian constitution says or use “Indonesian language” as the literal translation.

  11. avatar iamisaid says:


    Thank You !

    *phewww…. where were you all the while I was debating the issue?

    Ha ha ha ha ha

  12. avatar ausdag says:

    With respect Pak Mantri, I totally agree with what you say, but it is not the issue. No one on this discussion is arguing that ‘bahasa’ does not mean language’.

    In English we do not need to translate ‘bahasa’. It is already implied in that little letter ‘n; at the end of the word Indonesian. It is also incorrect to call bahasa Inggris – English language – as you do in you post above. You would have to add ‘The’ before it – The English language. and The Indonesian Language.



  13. avatar ausdag says:

    In my country (and it is not Indonesia where I live) “Indonesian” is not used to refer to Bahasa Indonesia. We say Bahasa Indonesia.

    Hence, just how wide is wide when expressing “widely accepted



    could you find me as many references to Bahasa Indonesia used as titles referring to the name of the language in English textbook titles, University language programs, school language programs, travel guides, etc..etc as you can for ‘Indonesian’? I think you’ll find it very difficult.

    That might give you a clue as to what is meant by wide.

    In my country (and it is not Indonesia where I live) “Indonesian” is not used to refer to Bahasa Indonesia. We say Bahasa Indonesia.

    So all the academic language programs taught in you country formally refer to it as Bahasa Indonesia? All the authors from your country who write about it call it Bahasa Indonesia? All the newspapers? All the dictionaries? What country do you come from, if I may ask?



  14. avatar ausdag says:

    The other thing to consider is this –

    If it is incorrect for English speakers to use Indonesian, because it is just a translation and not the name of the national language, then 220 million Indonesians are also speaking incorrect Indonesian when they use the term bahasa Inggris for the name of Australia’s The US’s, England’s etc national language.

    To follow the logic espoused by my ‘opponents’ when speaking Indonesian, Indonesians would be compelled by logic to say things like –

    Saya lagi belajar English.

    and all the Dictionaries and language textbooks would have to be titled –

    Buku pelajaran English.

    Kamus English

    Not only that, but the logic espoused here would also compel Indonesians to refer to Javanese and Balinese etc not as Bahasa Jawa or Bahasa Bali, for those are just translations of ‘Boso Jowo’and ‘Basa Bali’ (this would also need to be pronounced correctly – not Basa, but Base Bali.

    Saya lagi belajar Boso Jowo.

    Saya lagi belajar Base Bali…


    I would take this to private discussion with iamisaid via email, but I see that there are others still interested in this topic.



  15. avatar Achmad Sudarsono says:


    Where do you stand on classics such as:

    Kasiahaaan de loe !


    Capeeek deech !

    Or the timeless:

    A-B-C-D- Adu bo capek deh !

    A future suggested topics for you:

    * Why do we Indonesians have such lame insults ? Monyet (monkey). Anjing (dog). Matamu! (your eyes). Indonesia seriously lags other Asian languages in the power of insults, especially the Chinese dialects. Hakka, Fukkien, and especially Cantonese are full of florid curse-words that would curdle a sailor’s blood.

  16. avatar Janma says:

    Achmad that is so true! NO good swear words! The malay translation on the tv for when they say for example “Fu*% you!* is “Hubungan kelamin anda!”

    though that said, there are a few words I like to say just cause they sound good enough…. one is keparat… (for some reason this always reminds me of aparat…. so i use it when I want to insult policemen and their ilk). and I love kempret and naskleng.

  17. avatar ausdag says:

    Achmad Sudarsono Says: +0

    December 5th, 2007 at 10:45 am

    Where do you stand on classics such as:

    Kasiahaaan de loe !


    Capeeek deech !

    Or the timeless:

    A-B-C-D- Adu bo capek deh !


    I could never tire of a good discussion. So long as someone contributes new ideas, I’ll continue responding. It was suggested that I did not have an enquiring mind; I’m simply demonstrating the extent to which I’ve thought this topic through, and, as is standard academic practice, trying to demonstrate why my enquiring mind considers opinion to the contrary to be less than valid. Whether anyone cares to listen or not, well, that’s for them to decide. To avoid being bothered by the continuance of this discusion-cum-monologue, one could uncheck the little box at the bottom of the page that says ’email me if someonse posts a reply’, or one could avert their eyes from the the link to this page and click on something else. 🙂
    Others, however, might find the points I raise to be of at least some interest. Why keep them to myself?

    A future suggested topics for you:

    * Why do we Indonesians have such lame insults ? Monyet (monkey). Anjing (dog). Matamu! (your eyes). Indonesia seriously lags other Asian languages in the power of insults, especially the Chinese dialects. Hakka, Fukkien, and especially Cantonese are full of florid curse-words that would curdle a sailor’s blood.

    It’s all about maintaining harmony. Isn’t that the stock standard answer to most questions pertaining to the meaning of life, the universe and everything from an Indo/Javanese perspective?

  18. avatar Aluang Anak Bayang says:

    Okay, the 2 of you, give it a break.

    Whenever my kids had to fill in forms on what other language they can speak, it would be appropriate to write ‘Indonesian’ in the box than ‘Bahasa Indonesia’; because not all Bules know what ‘bahasa’ means; and not all Bules know we have many local dialects. By filling in ‘Indonesian’ in questionaires, it means the official language of Indonesia which is Bahasa Melayu.

    Problem solved.

  19. avatar pj_bali says:

    Just thought that I would add this link regarding Indonesian swear words. Sometimes it’s not what you say but how you say it.



  20. avatar Lyanne says:

    Just to clarrify things here.

    I was brought up in Jakarta.
    and yes it is called Bahasa Indonesia
    Bahasa meaning language
    and Indonesia meaning the country

    When it comes to Malaysian, it is Bahasa Melayu.
    Just like Sinapore is originally Majulah Singapura, and Hong Kong was originally Hoing Kong.

    In Indonesia the national language is Bahasa Indonesia, although there are many local dialects, eg. Bahasa Bali, and other more local ones for certain villages.

    Most people are mistaken that Bahasa Melay and Bahasa Indonesia are the same. They are not. They’re similar, but not the same. one example would be car and train, in Melay the meaning of car when translated to Indonesian is train, and vise versa. Not only is the language slightly different but the cooking is different, you could order soto ayam in both Indonesia and Malaysia and they would be different.

    The official language of Indonesia is NOT Bahasa Melayu
    Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia are2 different languages!

    I seriously don’t see why people always get that wrong…

  21. avatar MyIkram says:

    Proud who u are and dont forger ur root…!

    Thats my opinion towards this issue

  22. avatar Cintaindonesia says:

    I don’t care whether Australians want to learn Indonesian or not…Even if they can speak Indonesian, It doesn’t really give any benefits to my country at all. When I talk in Indonesian with my Indonesian friends in front of my Australian friends, they don’t know what I am talking about at all and when they ask me to translate it into English, I always say,” learn your Indonesian dude…”

Comment on “Learning Indonesian”.

RSS feed

Copyright Indonesia Matters 2006-15
Privacy Policy | Terms of Use | Contact