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Creativity and Crisis:
Teaching Indonesian in Australian Schools


The story of Indonesian language learning in Australian schools shows clear patterns of rising and falling. Unfortunately, in the last two decades, the fall has dominated. If current trends continue, Indonesian in Australian schools will be in irreversible crisis – caught between some positive efforts in primary schools and ever-dwindling student numbers in the secondary years.

“The people of the world must be able to speak to each other and be understood—to communicate as effectively and as rapidly as technology allows.”1 

Australia’s engagement with Indonesia and Indonesian through education has risen and fallen over seven decades.  It stretches back as far as the 1950s, with Indonesian growing in schools up until about 1970. This was an effort by successive Australian Governments to address greater awareness and understanding of Indonesia’s significance for Australia. The focus on Indonesia waned over 1970-1985 with changes in Australia’s policy settings, economy, and in Indonesia. In 1987, Indonesian was included in the first national languages policy, and by 1991 was embedded as one of the priority languages to be offered in Australian schools.2  

The two most significant and well-funded national initiatives since that time were arguably our most successful. One was the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools (NALSAS) Strategy (1994–2002) and later the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP) (2008–2012). These initiatives were coupled with funding incentives for schools, professional development for teachers and school leaders, national data collection, and greater engagement with Indonesia. Program alignment came in the form of initiatives like the BRIDGE School Partnerships program (Building Relationships through Intercultural Dialogue Growing Engagement) which directly linked schools in Australia and Indonesia delivered by AEF (which commenced in 2008).  

Two other significant points in this timeline were the 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians emphasized a focus on Asia, and the introduction of the Australian Curriculum in 2009 that identified ‘Intercultural Understanding’ as a general capability for all students and ‘Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia’ as a cross curriculum priority.  

The 2010 snapshot below (Figure 1) gives an indication of what was known about the numbers of students learning Indonesian in schools at that time, with secondary students most likely picking up some of the momentum from primary school exposure to the language. 

Figure 1: The Current State of Indonesian Language Education in Australian Schools: Bahasa Indonesia (AEF, 2010).

This data defined a time when Australian education was riding a wave of efforts to engage with Indonesia, in spite of the many growing challenges in assumptions and stereotypes around Indonesia. The seven-year gap between NALSAS and NALSSP coincided with wider shifts, especially the negative impact of the 2002 Bali bombings and growing domestic terrorism in Indonesia.

From 2013, NALSSP had ended and Australian education began a period of decline in national languages funding and policy support. There was the publication of a key 2014 report by AEF on ‘Senior Secondary Languages Education Research Project’ and ACARA also published more detailed work on Indonesian curriculum in the same year. In 2015 AEF lost its Federal Government core funding to promote the studies of Asia and Asian languages in Australian schools despite a series of informative key reports and school programs.

Australian states and territories were left to shape languages policies and incentives for themselves. Over the last decade, the pursuit of second language studies has been uneven across the Australian education system. We explore that further in the next chapter. However, the full picture of what happened across Government, Independent, and Catholic schools in studies of Indonesia or Indonesian language is not clear. Kathleen Turner from Newcrest Mining Limited says “…language learning at Australian schools and universities has been on a downhill trend for a long time now and educators and advocates of foreign language literacy have been completely disillusioned by a trend that seems inevitably veering towards the extinction of certain languages being taught.”[3] (p.79)

Key to understanding the context for Australian education engaging with Indonesia and Indonesian is an appreciation of the school and community factors that emerge regularly in investigations such as this and are also backed by data from the BRIDGE School Partnerships program. Primary schools deserve special mention as they make up the overwhelming bulk of students learning Indonesian in Australia. However, there are now far fewer pathways for students to follow the language into their secondary education.

Common school factors that impact languages education include –

  • Access to languages
  • Quality programs
  • Time allocation
  • Teacher education
  • Whole school commitment
  • Timetabling
  • Staffing impact
  • Parent and broader community support
  • Business and tertiary education sector links[4]

One of the most important perspectives is that of the students themselves. Very little is known about why and how students choose and continue languages over time, taking into account that languages become optional after Year 8 in most states and territories. Figure 2 below (from AEF research in 2014) is a powerful summary of the factors that impact on student decision-making in choosing to study or not study a second language in the senior secondary years.

Figure 2: Asia Education Foundation, Senior Secondary Languages Education Research Project (2014), p.68

In 2019 the Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Association (AFMLTA) received funding from the Federal Government to commence research and recommendations on all languages across Australian education, with outcomes expected by 2022. This is welcomed after a hiatus of Federal Government action over 5 years. However, more sustained and specific research also needs to take place to understand specific languages like Indonesian.

The most recent research on Indonesian was published in 2020 by Dr Michelle Kohler at the University of South Australia. In ‘Indonesian language education in Australia: Patterns of provision and contending ideologies’ Dr Kohler summarised the history and context of the initiatives on Asian languages as “the message, actual and symbolic, to schools and the broader community was that Indonesian was an important, and easy to learn Asian language for both individual young Australians and for the prosperity and security of the nation.”[5]

But in the world of 2021 Indonesian language learning continues to slip away. Universities are now questioning whether they can sustain language offerings, with Indonesian one of the first on the chopping block. Should nothing change, Indonesian study in Australia will be in irreversible crisis.


Develop a significant national learning bank of Indonesian language and studies curriculum resources to support schools.

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