Written by Patrick Moran- AIYA National Blog Editor

Translated by Gabriella PasyaAIYA National Translator

COVID-19 has posed numerous challenges across the globe. The pandemic and its associated restrictions have changed the way we work, study, socialise, and interact.

For Australians studying Indonesian, this has been a difficult, and isolating experience. A field of study which is built upon interaction, engagement, and conversation, has been altered significantly. 

Where students of Indonesian previously engaged with language through immersive travel experiences, the COVID situation has put this on hold. Passports remain in drawers, and students interact behind computer screens.

So how important is this shift? What are the consequences, and why does in-country immersion matter?

In pursuit of answers to these questions, I interviewed Liam Prince, Consortium Director of ACICIS, an organisation which implements in-country immersion experiences for Australian students of Indonesian.

Impact on Program Delivery  

Prior to the pandemic, ACICIS was renowned for its delivery of in-country experiences, providing opportunities for students to enhance their knowledge of the Indonesian language, whilst simultaneously engaging with culture, and fostering connections. 

Since the pandemic began, ACICIS programs have been delivered online; an entirely new and uncharted territory for the organisation. These programs include six-week Professional Practicums, and Indonesian Language Short Courses.

Professional Practicum programs in fields such as Agriculture, Business and Journalism remain largely unchanged, except for the method of delivery. Such programs involve students participating in a two-week language course, and four-week professional placement.

“We didn’t try to reinvent the wheel from a structural point of view”, Mr Prince said.

“The structure and the content- we haven’t changed a lot.”

Despite this, the experience is markedly different.

“Students are trying to project their imagination through a screen into Indonesia… that’s got to be a qualitatively different experience”, he said.

“The realist in me thinks that it can’t be as good an experience.”

In-country Indonesian studies have been put on hold by the pandemic. Image: Ahmad Syahrir (Pexels)

Declining Indonesian Studies

The shift to remote learning comes after a prolonged period of decline in the study of Indonesian amongst Australian students.

Mr Prince said that the decline has been “steady, incremental, and inevitable”, estimating that numbers have dropped from 2000 students in 2001, to 700 in 2019- before the pandemic took hold.

Whilst the number of students studying Indonesian in the COVID-era is unclear, demand for ACICIS programs has reduced to 60% of pre-pandemic levels in light of the move to online learning.

“A place like Indonesia, which was already remote in the imagination of most Australians… has receded even further into the distance”, he said.

“The headline effect of the pandemic (in Australia) has been to turn Australia in on itself.”

“If we were a smart country, we’d use this time (to develop language skills).”

Why is this important?

Mr Prince emphasised the individual and collective benefits of Australians learning Indonesian.

“The process of learning a language has enormous potential for self-discovery and self-realisation”, he said.

“Indonesia is important to Australia because of the facts of geography and demography.”

“Having more individuals that have walked that path… is good for the body politic, it’s good for the citizenry.”

In-country immersion enhances this experience.

“There might be some examples of people who have managed to end up with really high competency in Indonesian language without doing that (in-country immersion), but I haven’t met them.”

“You have to be a drongo not to incorporate some bit of in-country learning into your language major.”