Indonesian: The struggle for recognition
Earlier this year Manpower Minister Hanif Dhakiri sent a quiver of concern through the expat community: He proposed reviving a 2013 regulation forcing foreign workers to pass a language test.
Would executives have to clutter their minds with words they’d never need at their next overseas posting? Why bother when their Indonesian counterparts were eloquent in English?
The idea sunk but could resurface with the next wave of nationalism. Duncan Graham reports:
Jack Kreiser, 20, (above, right) is clearly more scholarly than his freshman features suggest. Unlike the clichéd Ugly American he comes across as polite and reserved, which suits Indonesian culture just fine. He also has no clear career plan.
“I’m interested in learning Indonesian and seeing what happens,” he said. “It’s just for fun. I’ve always been keen on languages and geography. My parents worry, but I’m OK – people are friendly and supportive.”
He’s studying at Malang’s Malangkucecwara College of Economics [MCE] (left) on a six-month Bahasa Indonesia bagi Penutur Asing [BIPA – Indonesian for Foreign Speakers] course. The campus is one of 104 institutions offering BIPA courses across the Republic.
Before he flew to East Java Kreiser studied Indonesian at the University of Minnesota. It has more than 51,000 students. He was the only one interested in the vocabulary and grammar used by almost 300 million people.
The figures get worse: According to the Modern Language Association less than 300 tertiary students across the US are comfortable asking apa kabar? [What’s up?]
What is up? The US is far away so the indifference might be understandable – though not excusable for the world’s most powerful nation. Surely it must be different in Indonesia’s southern neighbor separated by a narrow sea?
Not so. Fewer than 1,000 senior high school students in Australia are learning Indonesian. Far more were interested in 1972. The decline has been blamed on the 1998 Asian economic crisis, the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005 and subsequent travel warnings which curbed educational exchanges.
Japanese is now the most popular language taught in Australia.
Melbourne University Professor Tim Lindsey predicts that Indonesian studies will be extinct at tertiary level within eight years. And this despite shouts of protest by academics, diplomats and traders dating back decades.
In the Australian Parliament shadow treasurer Chris Bowen has been making headlines by confessing he’s learning Indonesian as though this is something weird, akin to nude tightrope walking. He told journalists:
“We need a broader, less transactional relationship with Indonesia that needs to have mutual respect, and one way we show interest and respect is learning the language.”
But he didn’t say what his Labor Party would do to change the situation if it wins office at the election next year and he didn’t get widespread support.
Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett, in Jakarta last month to check on the 25-year Sister-State relationship with East Java, reportedly rejected the idea that Asian language studies need to be saved.
He told AAP: ‘There are very few parts of the world where meetings aren’t conducted in English and they are generally not with interpreters.’
These are the slaps in the face for the world’s fourth largest nation whose unity has been built on consolidating a national language that’s the most used in Southeast Asia. Outside this zone Indonesian is dwarfed by Chinese, Spanish, Hindi and English.
BIPA is Indonesia’s fight-back. It’s a non-degree program run by the Ministry of Education and Culture, designed to promote Indonesian language by providing courses for foreign students.
Apart from these there are 136 BIPA programs in 22 countries, including Australia.
Although some students fund themselves, most are like Jack Kreiser, winners of Darmasiswa Scholarships, an Indonesian Government award scheme started in 1974. Next year 640 successful applicants from 78 countries will get a monthly Rp 2 million [US $145] stipend and free tuition.
Three of the 19 enrolees at MCE have a Darmasiswa, including Ayaka Mashimo, 20, from Saitama and Yuka Ueno, 21, from Tokyo. Their learning is even tougher because the Japanese kanji and kana writing systems are worlds apart from the Latin alphabet.
Like many foreigners they struggle with the complex system of prefixes and suffixes. “Most people think I’m Chinese,” said Ayaka. “I just smile.” But her colleague insists on explaining that she is Japanese and why she’s in Indonesia.
For those wanting to study privately at MCE, monthly fees, including tuition, homestay, all meals and field trips amount to US $1,375 [Rp 19 million]. Air fares and visa costs are additional.
“One of the realities is that many Indonesian universities are opening BIPA programs and they are of greatly varying quality,” said Professor David Hill, the founder and director of the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies [ACICIS].
This has placed almost 2,000 foreign students in top Indonesian universities during the past 20 years.
“Even those [BIPA courses] at highly regarded universities are often very poorly taught. I believe such programs won’t attract Australian students unless they are well-run, attuned to the more interactive teaching styles that Australians expect, and widely marketed in Australia.
MCE course controller Widodo (right) [“Indonesian is my second language, Javanese my first”] pioneered BIPA and has won awards for his work in Malang. He agreed that standards varied across the archipelago.
He said MCE classes followed a total immersion program and were kept below 12 to ensure close contact. He and his staff, who are trained teachers, have produced their own texts called Practical Indonesian.
Notices around the campus along with wayang kulit [shadow puppet] figures remind all that Disini hanya berbahasa Indonesia [here we only speak Indonesian].
“Not all work is in class,” he said. “We take trips to markets, events, public buildings and cultural sites. I want Malangkucecwara to be the center of excellence so foreigners appreciate our life and culture. As a consultant to BIPA I’ve been pushing for national accreditation of course providers.”
So has the Assosiasi Pengajar BIPA [Association of BIPA teachers], according to its director Dr Liliana Muliastuti.
“We are working with the Ministry to achieve this – maybe next year,” she said. “Interest in Indonesian is growing, particularly from ASEAN countries, and we are sending BIPA teachers overseas.”
The Indonesia Australia language Foundation, a company set up by the Indonesian and Australian governments has offices in Jakarta, Surabaya and Denpasar. Although the primary purpose is teaching English, 40-hour courses in Indonesian costing Rp 3 million [US$ 217], less for bigger classes, are available.
Private institutions claiming to have diplomats and multinational company clients are also advertising on the Internet. Commented Dr Muliastuti: “Until we get national accreditation prospective students should do their own research on the quality of the institution and what it has achieved.”
In October 1928 nationalists at the Second Youth Conference in Jakarta swore the Sumpah Pemuda oath –one motherland, one nation, one language.
Then, as now, Javanese was the most spoken of the Archipelago’s 700 languages, while Dutch was used in government and business.
Instead the far-sighted delegates chose what was once known as Trade Malay and called it Indonesian. The decision was a master stroke, ensuring national unity.
When a 360-strong contingent of Australian businesspeople passed through the Archipelago last month (Nov) with goodies to trade, the Indonesia-Australia Report website dug up a news clipping from 1968.
This covered a State visit by the late John Gorton, then prime minister of Australia and his wife Bettina.
Gorton was here to talk about economic and security issues, but the US-born First Lady stole the show by delivering formal speeches and radio chats in flawless Indonesian.
An honors graduate in oriental studies from the prestigious Australian National University, Mrs Gorton’s ability to respectfully relate to Indonesians probably did more to lift Australia’s profile than hours of TV showing suits shaking hands.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 20 December 2015)
(First published in The Jakarta Post 20 December 2015)