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.
"If Australia does not understand what is happening then it risks missing out on using its home-grown smarts in a much bigger way."
Crisis is borne out of complexity and a lack of capacity to manage, read and control a situation over time. Given the wider landscape of languages in Australian schools, there is no doubt that this space is deeply complex and has reached a critical juncture. There are no easy solutions, no silver bullets, to solve what appears to be a crisis of engagement in Bahasa Indonesia in schools, with a great void and disconnect between primary and secondary schools.
Australian education strives to be evidence driven. In languages this is commonly limited to counting the numbers of students learning Indonesian. The most consistent measure of numbers of students studying Indonesian over the past decade has been the proportion of Year 12 students who study the language. Figure 3 below is the cumulative data from ACARA on Year 12 language enrolments from 2006-2019.
What’s noticeable about the thin-blue line of Indonesian since 2006, is that Year 12 enrolments have halved, from 6.4% of languages enrolments to 3.4%. One of the few languages to have such declines.
Due to the fact that there had simply been no collection of languages participation data from Foundation to Year 10 for a decade, Dr. Michelle Kohler took the initiative to see if she could update the 2010 data she had collected and analysed for the AEF’s Current State of Indonesian Language Education in Australian Schools: Bahasa Indonesia.
The reality begins to look dire when you consider, for example, that in South Australia last year, the number of Year 12 SACE students who completed Indonesian numbered just 32, down from 44 in 2019 (0.4% of all SACE enrolments). The ‘cliff’ between primary and secondary school participation in Indonesian is particularly pronounced and clearly contributes to a lack of senior secondary students learning the language. It is at the junior secondary level that more investigation and intervention need to take place. See Figure 4 below comparing the national differences (all States and the ACT) between 2009 and 2016.
While the reasons for these stark differences and declines have been outlined in Chapter One, the picture still feels incomplete - the voice of young people is either not factored in or disappears into a ‘head-count’. With Indonesian an “economic narrative is not enough: it does little to inspire twelve or even twenty-year-olds, and young people must be shown the value of engaging with others, and in the process learn about themselves and their own communities.”
There is an ongoing lack of even the most basic data to inform solutions. Catholic and Independent sectors in many states do not contribute to languages data, and this results in an incomplete picture. The Victorian Department of Education and Training records the most comprehensive languages data in Australia, and their annual analysis is very detailed. In 2019, about 87% of Victorian Government schools offered language programs, with 70% of all students enrolled in these programs. Even so, and with some supporting initiatives and policies, the actual numbers of Victorian students in Indonesian (14% of all language enrolments) have been moving downward (despite a positive gain in secondary schools in 2019); see Figure 5 below.
One of the other glaring gaps in analysis is the absence of data at levels deeper than this. Consider that the other major channels for students to learn about Indonesia comes through subject areas like the Humanities, Arts, Civics and Religion. Very little is known about the consistency and depth that students learn about Indonesia, beyond formal program engagements. Teachers and school leaders play a key role in this. The level of teacher awareness and competence with Indonesia is a central element, one where it is surrounded by narratives that for “much of Australia’s past, Indonesia has been regarded as exotic, alien, and suspect.” In fact, the latest Lowy Institute poll suggests that Australians generally have a limited understanding of Indonesia and low trust in its leaders.
To add more tension to this crisis, observe what is happening at the tertiary level. Indonesian has been on the chopping block for several prominent Australian universities, with media and public pressure appearing to stave off the inevitable.
The contradicting messaging is that “Indonesian is easy yet useless, it is fun yet threatening, it is economically important yet not culturally prestigious.” When that involves our nearest Asian neighbour with deep historical ties, learning about language and culture should be a sincere effort to build relationships and two-way engagement.
Regularly collect, analyse and report on data on Indonesian language and studies across Australian schools to inform progress and planning.
 Brown, H. Bridging a looming digital divide with Indonesia (Asia Society Disruptive Asia 2018), p.55
 Kohler, M. Going there: reviving Indonesian in education, (Asia Society Disruptive Asia 2018), p.86
 Languages Provision in Victorian Government Schools, (State of Victoria, Department of Education and Training 2019) p.10
 Kohler, M. Going there: reviving Indonesia/n in education, (Asia Society Disruptive Asia 2018), p.86
 Kohler, M. Indonesian language education in Australia: Patterns of provision and contending ideologies (2020), p.16