Fri, 19 Aug 1994

A Letter from Australia: `Bahasa' is popular in Australia

"I write this column in a hope that we will increase our understanding of each other. It is essential for us, as neighbors, to be friends in the region. We will only develop this friendship through knowing more about each other," says Ros Kelly, a Member of Parliament who recently resigned as Minister for the Environment.

Dear friends,

I just returned from a two-week trip to the United States. I was lucky enough to be present at the Three Tenors Concert plus the World Cup Soccer Final. What a weekend!.

The first function I attended on my return to Australia was a program of Asian dance performed by nine-year-old children from a school in Canberra.

It was well performed, but it was something you would never have seen in an Australian school even a few years ago.

Back then children might have been performing an Irish Jig (as I did during my days at school), or something in a classical ballet tutu.

But dance is not the only change occurring in Australian schools. A sign on the door of my 10-year-old daughter Jessica's classroom doesn't say Welcome or Bon Soir or Buon Giorno, it says Selamat Datang.

This is a real indicator that the study of Indonesian in Australian schools is making great progress.

Language study is another area where Australia's old ways of looking at things and doing things is changing for the better. Many more students are learning Asian languages than ever before.

Not that "the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater." European and other languages, especially those of Australia's many migrant communities are still being studied.

English itself is important to the many thousands of people who migrated to Australia from Asia and elsewhere, or who have come to Australia to study.

In New South Wales government run schools, Bahasa Indonesia was the fifth most popular language other than English studied for 1992 (the most recent year for which figures are available). These figures are a good guide to what is happening in all states of Australia.

German and Italian are third and fourth in popularity, but Asian languages generally, and Japanese in particularly, which is second, are very popular with students these days.

The most popular language is still French, perhaps reflecting a historical cultural bias. In order to address this problem, Australian governments in Canberra and the states, have committed to a National Asian Languages and Studies Strategy. It is aimed at increasing understanding of Asian languages and cultures, particularly Indonesian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean, in Australian Schools.

Some $A48 million (US$ 36 million) was allocated to this strategy by the Australian government earlier this year. The main aim is to see all children in years 3 to 10 studying an Asian language within a decade, as well as 25 percent of students in Australia in their final year of school.

Part of this funding is directed to the Asian Education Foundation which works with a selection of 250 schools in Australia, and last year sent 41 teachers to Asian countries, including Indonesia, to study.

We will be holding an Asia Week in schools throughout Australia beginning on Aug. 15. This provides an opportunity to focus on Australia's relationship with Asia and on what is happening in schools around the country in terms of the study of Asia.

At my nine-year-old son's school for example, the school is making every class study one Asian country.

A big emphasis will be on food and culture. I will need a few Indonesian recipes to make our family's contribution to the food fair. On the subject of changing culture, especially in food, it is interesting to note that about half the restaurant and cafe meals served in Australia are Indonesian, Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai cuisine. But some groups in Australia, such as people of Italian and Greek background have never eaten a Chinese meal.

One of the high schools in Canberra will perform an Indonesian Dance called Ramayana which tells stories in dance of the travels and relationships of the characters Rama and Sita as you well know. They will invite all other schools to see the dance.

All of this adds up to an enormous change in the place that Indonesia in particular and Asia in general occupies in Australian schools.

As time goes by, and Australian children grow up, they will have an increased understanding of our neighboring countries that has been denied their parents.

When traveling in Indonesia they will be able to buy tickets to the legong, and order rendang for us "oldies" in Indonesian.

They will be able to add to mutual understanding by practicing their Indonesian with all the Indonesian kids who come to Australia and practice their English with us!.

Good-bye until next time.