“Indonesia-crazy” Emma Roberts on why you should learn Indonesian

Photo courtesy of Juang

Anyone who knows me today would describe me as “Indonesia-crazy” and they have good reason to do so; I travel to Indonesia more often than anywhere else and when I’m not here, I spend most of my time telling everyone that I wish I were. I have also gotten into the bad habit of mixing Indonesian words into my English and dedicate time each week to keeping up with Indonesian current affairs. I’d say I’m well and truly hooked. However, what most people don’t know is that just over two years ago I had never been to Indonesia, couldn’t speak the language and knew next to nothing about its culture or politics. Not only was I unaware and inexperienced but also disinterested; the option to learn Indonesian, let alone any Asian language, had never been a priority for me.

What triggered me to begin to learn Indonesian was the requirement in my Asia-Pacific Studies degree (which I had chosen due to my interest in the Pacific) that I major in an Asian language. I actually fought long and hard to bypass this requirement; I was keen to continue with German, which I had been already studying for seven years, and didn’t see a reason to change. However, after several unsuccessful meetings with professors and program coordinators, I accepted defeat and enrolled in an Indonesian major. While I was rather disgruntled at the time, in retrospect it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

I chose Indonesian over Chinese, Japanese and other languages because I was, if I’m frank, lazy. I was already annoyed about having to learn a language I had little interest in and decided to make what I perceived to be a “burden” easier on myself by sticking to Latin characters.

While I wish I had a more admirable reason for choosing to embark on what has become my clearest life path so far, I am nevertheless grateful that my degree pushed me to realise the value of engaging with our closest Asian neighbour. Thankfully I can now think of a million better reasons why learning Indonesian is a good idea and I’m going to share five of them in the hope that you might be inspired to make the smart (not lazy) decision to focus your career on Indonesia.

The abundance of in-country study programs and scholarships available

I mentioned earlier that my interest in Indonesia began only 28 months ago, in January 2013. However what I haven’t told you yet is that I’ve been able to spend 12 of those months in Indonesia thanks to the wide range of in-country study programs, internship opportunities and scholarships available to Australians.

In my first year of Indonesian study, I managed to complete six semesters’ worth of language learning within one year thanks to an intensive in-country Indonesian program run by Satya Wacana Christian University in Central Java. PIBBI (Program Intensif Bahasa dan Budaya Indonesia) provides three-week private or group Indonesian courses which equate to one semester worth of study at the Australian National University, as well as several other Australian partner universities. I commenced my Indonesian study with two back-to-back courses in January/February 2013, did one course of Indonesian at ANU in Semester 1 2013, returned to PIBBI for two courses in June/July 2013 and finally completed Advanced Indonesian B at ANU in Semester 2 2013. While cramming an entire language major into a year may not be for everyone, in-country intensive courses provide a great way to fast-track your studies, apply your language skills in practical situations and get a taste of Indonesian culture. I had a fantastic experience at PIBBI and can also recommend another intensive in-country course several of my friends have taken in Lombok, which is run by the Regional Universities Indonesian Language Initiative (RUILI) in collaboration with the University of Mataram.

After getting a grasp of Indonesian language and culture during my first year of study it didn’t take long for me to decide that I would set my sights on Indonesia for the foreseeable future. I really enjoyed the time I spent in-country more than anything else and therefore decided to commit to a longer period in Indonesia through the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS). ACICIS offers a variety of semester-long programs, in various Indonesian locations, ranging from language courses to field research placements and development studies immersion programs. ACICIS also has shorter-term internship placements with organisations in Jakarta and elsewhere. In my case, I completed an exchange at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta last semester where I took classes (taught in Indonesian) from the Faculties of Law and Social Sciences. This semester I am undertaking research while based at Muhammadiyah University in Malang.

I was lucky enough to receive a New Colombo Plan scholarship to support my ACICIS experience as well as a semester of interning which I will complete during the second half of this year. The New Colombo Plan is a new initiative by the government offering scholarships of up to $65,000 and mobility grants of varying amounts to Australian students undertaking study and internship programs in the Indo-Pacific region. Another government scholarship available for study in Indonesia is the Prime Minister’s Endeavour Award. This offers a similar amount of funding to the New Colombo Plan scholarship. Applications for both the New Colombo Plan and Endeavour Award need to be made during the application period to your university, which will then nominate a set number of students to the government for consideration.

In addition to the in-country opportunities which form part of my personal experience, I have met many friends in Indonesia who are studying or interning here through a multitude of other programs. AIESEC and Internship Indonesia offer both students and graduates opportunities to get practical experience in a cross-cultural setting. The Indonesian government’s Darmasiswa program grants scholarships to international students from all around the world to undertake language and other studies at many of Indonesia’s top universities. If you are after something shorter-term, the Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program and Muslim Exchange Program give young Australians and Indonesians the opportunity to experience one another’s cultures. You can also check out the Australia-Indonesia Youth Association’s website and Facebook page for news on additional upcoming in-country opportunities.

Australia’s interest in Indonesia is strong and increasing

I’m not going to ponder on this point because Australia’s growing investment in Indonesia is clear from the media; however what I will say is that learning about Indonesia can exponentially increase your employment prospects. As Asia’s economic and political power expands, many of the world’s traditional “powers” have focussed on strengthening their relationships with countries in the Indo-Pacific to facilitate greater cooperation within the international community. As Australia’s closest Asian neighbour, Indonesia has logically become a focus point for our government. By gaining Indonesian language skills and cultural experience you are making yourself more employable in economics, public policy, development and just about any other sector for our “Asia-centric” future.

Linguistic and geographic accessibility

I am not proud that I started to learn Indonesian because I was basically trying to look for an “easy option” within the realm of Asian language learning; however, the fact still stands that studying Indonesian does require considerably less effort compared to many other languages. Not only does Indonesian use the Latin alphabet but it also doesn’t have genders, cases or tenses, all of which I struggled with during my years of German study. I managed to attain a level of language ability to “get by” quite easily a few weeks into my first intensive Indonesian course, which is something that would have taken me much longer to achieve in most other languages.

In addition to its language being relatively easy, Indonesia is accessible geographically and financially for Australians compared to other Asia-Pacific locations. A one-way ticket to most Indonesian cities via Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta or Bali will cost you an average of $300 to $700, which is much cheaper than the minimum $1000 to get to Europe or Asian countries further from Australia (such as China or India). Furthermore, the generous exchange rate of 1 AUD to approximately 10,000 IDR means that the cost of living in Indonesia is generally very affordable for Australians.

Natural and cultural diversity means there’s something for everyone

One of the greatest things about Indonesia is its diversity; there aren’t many countries in the world that are as ethnographically and geographically diverse as Indonesia. While most foreigners in Indonesia tend to wind up in Java or Bali, there are another 16,998 islands (many with unique traditions and dialects) which you can make your temporary home if neither of these appeals to you. Urban or rural, mountainous or tropical, modern or traditional, Islamic or Christian or Hindu or animistic; Indonesia spoils you for choice!

Amazing holiday destinations on your doorstep

If not the most important reason, studying in Indonesia means that an abundance of amazing beaches, mountains, cities and villages are on your doorstep for the weekend or semester break getaways. Whether you feel like trekking up Mount Rinjani, seeing wild orangutans in Kalimantan, lying on the beach in Flores or partying the weekend away on Gili Trawangan, it’s all there and easily accessible by a couple of hours on a plane, boat, bus or train (depending on where in the archipelago you end up).

Have I convinced you to learn Indonesian?

I hope I have managed to persuade you that focussing on Indonesia is not only an “easy” way to gear-up for the Asian Century but more importantly a pathway that will undoubtedly be enjoyable, fruitful and full of opportunity. Even if all you choose to do is undertake a basic language course or a short-term in-country internship placement, I can guarantee you that your experience will not only tempt you to come back for seconds but also equip you with basic skills to become a key player in shaping Australia’s future engagement with our region. Before you know it, your friends will be calling you “Indonesia-crazy” too!

Click here or here to find out more about the New Colombo Plan.

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Emma Roberts

Emma is a fourth year Asia-Pacific Studies/Law student at the Australian National University. She is currently undertaking field research about gender-based violence, legal justice and patriarchy in East Java as part of an 18-month New Colombo Plan scholarship exchange. Emma was selected as the inaugural Yudhoyono Fellow under the New Colombo Plan, which recognizes her as the highest achieving scholar in Indonesia. She has recently been invited by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to represent Australia at the upcoming 2015 Australia-ASEAN Emerging Leaders Program and 29th Asia-Pacific Roundtable.

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