The journey of Australia’s first Asian language (book review)


In his introduction to Talking North, Paul Thomas suggests that the study of Indonesian language and culture in Australia might be described as a ‘national project’, a pathway to a deeper understanding and engagement with our nearest Asian neighbour. The contributors to this book, as a group of people deeply involved in and committed to this project, reflect on its history and current development, and relate their own experiences, first as curious students then as passionate teachers of Indonesian.

The first section of the book focuses on the changing fortunes of Indonesian language teaching programs and the political, economic forces and government policies which have shaped them. Paul’s two chapters provide a broad historical context for these processes. His first chapter describes how Malay language was used in early interactions between the indigenous people of northern Australia and Indonesian traders, as a lingua franca in the mixed-race settlements of the north in 19th century, then promoted to facilitate trade with the Indonesian archipelago in the 1930s and for military purposes during World War II.

The second chapter takes the story forward into the 1950s, when Australia was attempting to work out its relationship with newly-independent Indonesia. Paul enlivens the narrative with some intriguing anecdotes about important historical figures involved in this activity, such as Prime Minister Menzies, writing a speech in his bathtub, then delivering it in Bahasa Indonesia on his state visit to Indonesia, despite being declared ‘language deaf’ by the Indonesian-speaking Australian diplomat called in to coach him for the task. A key focus of Paul’s account are efforts by Australian governments to promote the study of Indonesian, largely for political and economic purposes, by encouraging and helping to fund the establishment of Indonesian language programs in universities and schools.

The other chapters in the first section of the book report on the ‘roller coaster’ history, the times of expanding growth then plummeting decline of these courses themselves.

Inside Indonesia for more 

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