Popularizing Indonesian for Foreign Speakers

Interest in learning Indonesian among foreign speakers is not new. In the United States, for example, interest in learning Indonesian was evident even before Indonesia’s independence. But why hasn’t Indonesian become a popular language to learn in America? What are the challenges for Indonesian language teachers here and what do they think can help popularize it?

The Modern Language Association (MLA), the agency that promotes the study and teaching of languages ​​in America, regularly conducts censuses to track enrollments for language classes at the college level. The final report from MLA’s last census, published in 2019, highlights its 2016 census

. According to the report, Spanish and French are still the two most popular foreign languages ​​to learn in America. Meanwhile, among the 15 most studied foreign languages ​​in the fall of 2016, only two experienced an increase in enrollment, respectively Japanese, 3.1 percent and Korean 13.7 percent.

How about teaching Indonesian to foreign speakers, especially in the United States? MLA does not record Indonesian even in the top 15 most studied languages.

Indriyo Sukmono has been a lecturer in Indonesian for foreign speakers (BIPA) at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, since 2001. Indriyo said foreign language teaching programs are usually inseparable from regional studies.  The teaching of Indonesian at Yale University, for example, has existed in Southeast Asian regional studies which was founded around the 1940s.

Indonesian participants hang out playing gaple while learning Indonesian (photo: courtesy).

Indonesian participants hang out playing gaple while learning Indonesian (photo: courtesy).

When he first started teaching, he had two students at the undergraduate level and two at the graduate level. Currently, there are about 100 students in the beginner, intermediate and upper classes. Seeing the number of students who are currently interested in it, explained Indriyo, “Thank God Indonesian is still selling well.”

How much interest in learning Indonesian at American universities? Indriyo explained that in the US there is COTI, the Consortium for the Teaching of Indonesian, the only Indonesian language teaching organization in North America that was formed in 1975. This organization includes 12 universities across America that have permanent teachers of Indonesian.

In general, US colleges require undergraduate students to take foreign language classes for one to three semesters. At this level, Indonesian must compete with other more established foreign languages ​​such as Spanish, French, German. If you want it to be easy, students will usually take the foreign language program that they have learned in high school.

However, Indriyo said that not a few of his students want to have an adventure in learning a new language and culture or because they are moved by references or promotions between friends.

Indonesian itself is actually fairly easy for foreign speakers, observes Vania Maherani, an Indonesian teacher for foreign speakers from the State University of Malang, East Java.

Vania Maherani, BIPA lecturer at Malang State University, East Java. (Photo: Vania)

Vania Maherani, BIPA lecturer at Malang State University, East Java. (Photo: Vania)

“From the concept, maybe because Indonesian uses the alphabet, it doesn’t use characters like in Korea, Thailand, or China, for writing, it’s already easier. In terms of pronunciation, there are some words that are similar or even the same as English,” he explained.

It is so easy, according to Indriyo’s observations, that he likens Indonesian to gasoline, which allows the vehicle to start immediately as soon as the engine is started. However, he also reminded that the challenge faced by learners is Indonesian grammar which continues to develop. Sometimes, Indonesian that seems good is not necessarily correct, or vice versa, explained Indriyo, who also said that there is no other way for learners other than memorizing various exceptions in the applicable grammar.

Returning to the final results of the MLA census, not a few experts attribute the phenomenon of increasing interest, especially in the Korean language, to the growing popularity of pop culture called the Korean Wave. From an interest in Korean culture, interest in learning the language is even greater.

Why can't Indonesian be included in a culture that can be brought into the international realm, while there is a lot of Indonesian culture that can be introduced?

Jolanda Mendaun Pandin who since 2006 has taught Indonesian at Cornell University. (Photo: Personal Documents)

Jolanda Mendaun Pandin who since 2006 has taught Indonesian at Cornell University. (Photo: Personal Documents)

Vania explained, “In Korea, I think the culture is homogeneous, only one type, while in Indonesia there are several million cultures that can actually be introduced to the world.”

The problem is, maybe no agent has yet dared or is still too shy to introduce it. Another possibility, said Vania, is that Indonesia has not focused on doing this because it is still struggling with many other things, such as health problems or basic needs.

But Indriyo stated that actually Indonesia could also follow the cultural approach taken by Korea in introducing its language. For example, by riding on the popularity of Indonesian cultural heritage that is recognized by UNESCO, such as angklung, or tempeh which is being sought for recognition. In addition, “I want young Indonesians who have musical and graphic design skills (to be involved). So it’s as simple as (designing) a ‘thank you’ or ‘how are you’ in multiple languages. I wish there was Indonesian there.”

What is clear is that involving young Indonesians in initiating things that they think can be transmitted to the younger generation in America is the most effective way to popularize the Indonesian language, said Indriyo.

Niniek Lunde, Indonesian language teacher since 1993 at the University of California, Berkeley. (Photo: Personal Documentation)

Niniek Lunde, Indonesian language teacher since 1993 at the University of California, Berkeley. (Photo: Personal Documentation)

But no less important is the role and creativity of the teachers to make their students stay in class and continue to be interested in Indonesian. Indriyo gave an example of one of the programs that he organizes at the end of each semester that his students always like. In the program showcase

Meanwhile, students exhibit their learning outcomes through special performances, either by telling stories, showing off their talents through music and poetry and so on.

Vania considers the importance of a teacher having an open mind and willingness to learn new things, considering the many different values ​​that apply in Indonesia and in America. [uh/ab]

More than that, Indriyo also emphasized, “The teaching profession must be recognized as a matter of pride. If it’s a proud profession, we automatically try to equip ourselves as professionals.”

The next census begins in 2021 and will be published in 2023.