Listen: how audiobooks could help literacy in Indonesia


By: Irfan Rifai, Bina Nusantara University in Jakarta

Since adults learn differently than children, tapping into familiar mediums could help boost literacy.

For Generation X in Indonesia, 80s radio dramas like Saur Sepuh – a show dramatizing the power struggles of the Majapahit empire – were akin to today’s Netflix. Some of these shows were so popular that they helped preserve regional languages.

Decades later, Indonesia’s literacy levels are not where they could be. Encouraging more Indonesians to embrace audiobooks could be one way forward.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the global use of digital apps for people to consume and exchange information, Indonesia’s digital literacy index is still at the “average” level.

The government wants to increase digital literacy among women, low-income people, the low-educated and the elderly, all groups that are lagging behind in digital literacy.

Unlike children, adults learn using their existing base of knowledge and life experience. And for Generations X and Y, groups that collectively make up 47.75% of the entire Indonesian population, radio drama is a good frame of reference.

These generations have also witnessed a change in behavior with regard to the consumption and storage of data, without forgetting the transformation of texts into eBooks, then towards other forms integrating visual and audiovisual components.

In the United States, adults between the ages of 30 and 49 are the heaviest users of audiobooks, helping to drive the overall growth of the industry.

Despite the growing popularity of audiobooks, many language and literacy experts still question the platform’s contribution to supporting student understanding. Some argue that for able-bodied students, listening to an audiobook is a “cheat” because it does not provide the same experience as for those reading regular books or texts.

On the other hand, many literacy skills and strategies used by audiobook readers are comparable to those used by text readers. For example, students need to use background knowledge and inferences to understand stories, while improving their comprehension, while listening to audiobooks.

Patterns of stress and intonation in a language spoken by narrators, known as prosody, can also help listeners clarify the meaning of certain ambiguous words. Despite the lack of popularity of audiobooks in Indonesia, and researchers dismissing them, the habits of listening to stories told in audio form could become an important “knowledge fund” for adults wishing to improve their literacy through a familiar medium.

Busy Indonesians are already big Spotify users, and audiobooks suit their busy lifestyles, which can be consumed on the go anytime and anywhere.

Younger, more active adults can listen to audiobooks while they exercise, jog, or hit the gym. Those who live in rural areas or have poor internet infrastructure can even listen to audiobooks by downloading them to their cell phones in advance from computers at school or the public library.

For human beings, listening is a fundamental skill for all kinds of learning. But like any other skill, getting better takes practice. Listening and reading are two integrated receptive skills needed to significantly improve proficiency in a foreign or second language. A regular habit of listening to audiobooks could also help develop phonemic and phonological awareness or awareness of sounds in their own language.

Students can start by listening to audiobooks that are longer than they read.

Irfan Rifai is a lecturer in the Department of English at Bina Nusantara University, Jakarta, Indonesia. He is actively involved in the Indonesian Association of Literacy Teachers. His research focuses on reading and writing instructions; Literacy; and reader response. Dr. Rifai declares no conflict of interest and has received no funding in any form.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.


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