My Indonesian Journey

Last summer (2019), I began making preparations to travel to West Java, Indonesia, where, later that year, I would marry my wife and spend time with her family. It wasn’t a simple endeavor, but certainly one I was glad to undertake. Since my wife’s family spoke the Indonesian language, called Bahasa or Bahasa Indonesia, I made a determination to study the language. I wanted to be ready to practice once I arrived.

My experience with Indonesian was fairly limited before this. I only knew a handful of speakers of Malay, of which Bahasa Indonesia is a dialect. These people were refugees from Burma who had migrated to Malaysia for some years before arriving and settling in the United States. Besides these refugee families, a close friend of mine in the Muslim community of San Diego had married from Indonesia many years ago, and he and all his children speak it fluently with one another. As a language lover, the language was distantly fascinating to me, but since I hadn’t known many people who spoke it often enough, my focus remained primarily on other languages.

The most important part of my journey was motivation.

All of that changed with the most important steps of my life so far. Now that the motivation was there, it was time to study. At first, I learned a few initial words from my wife while conversing with her. Later, I drew the majority of my initial vocabulary from the free language-learning application Duolingo. A PDF I found called Bahasa Indonesia in Seven Days by Michael Bordt and Liswati Seram (see Mr. Bordt’s website) is another important part of my early Indonesian-learning journey. The structural and functional approach focused my learning on specific vocabulary and phrases I would be putting into immediate use. As my vocabulary and familiarity with grammar increased, I drew from other free resources, focusing on the most common vocabulary.

Scenic view of Indonesian rice paddies from Le Eminence Hotel in Puncak, Indonesia

Practicing in Indonesia

By the time I made it to Jakarta, I paid close attention, listening to people talk to one another. Most people I met wouldn’t speak to me much in Indonesian if they knew any amount of English. My confidence in speaking was still fairly low, and I didn’t exactly look like a local either. I stayed in West Java for nearly a month. During this time, I rarely brought myself to utter more than a word or a short sentence.

Around my wife’s family, practicing to speak was particularly difficult. I was able to listen and respond in English. But, speaking a word or phrase would result in so much surprise and enthusiasm from her family, it was almost embarrassing. This was definitely better than most circumstances, of course, and I never felt too shy to try again. The local people I met were also very friendly and easy to approach. Often, while standing on the side of the road, I would be approached by a smiling stranger, asking where I was from and teaching me new words.

Before I returned to the United States, I made an important purchase: an Indonesian copy of HAYATUS SHAHABAH. I could have bought any Indonesian book. But, being a man of religion, I felt the vocabulary would be relevant to my use of the language. When I returned, I read several pages a week, even if I didn’t understand. I especially paid close attention to vocabulary, word order and sentence structure. Hearing myself read aloud also helped attune my ears to the phonology of the language.

What is Indonesian like?

Compared to other languages I have studied, Bahasa Indonesia is not a difficult language to learn. Indonesian uses the same Latin alphabet system as English. Bahasa Indonesia is mostly phonetic, with a couple differences from English. For example:

C sounds like the English CH [as in CHEESE]
H is usually as a glottal stop [like the sound in the middle of UH-OH]
K is usually silent, particularly when it comes at the end of a word. [TIDAK sounds like TIDA’ with a glottal stop at the end]

The word Indonesian word kecap sounds exactly like the word ketchup in English. In fact, Indonesian is where we get the word from. Only, when Indonesians say kecap, they are actually referring to soy-based sauce. What we call ketchup, Indonesians call saus tomat, or tomato sauce. You can imagine how confusing this makes grocery shopping in Indonesia. By the way, they also don’t use the word saus in the same way we use the word sauce. For example, if it has chunks and grains, hot chili sauce is mostly called sambal. Saus only refers to a pureed sauce.

This is kecap manis or sweet soy sauce

Indonesian Grammar

In addition to phonology, the grammar is also fairly easy to learn. Indonesian nouns and pronouns are not grammatically gendered. The single word DIA applies to the 3rd person singular pronoun and is equivalent to the English HE, SHE, and IT. Also, Indonesian verbs are not conjugated based on gender or tense. To say that something happened at a specific time, aspect words such as SUDAH (already), BELUM (not yet), or AKAN (will) are simply added before the verb. For example:

Saya PERGI ke rumah – I go to home.
Kamu SUDAH PERGI ke rumah – You already go to home (You already went home)
Dia BELUM PERGI ke rumah – She/He/It not-yet go to home (He/She/It hasn’t gone home yet.)
Mereka AKAN PERGI ke rumah – They will go to home.
Kalian TIDAK PERGI ke rumah – You (pl) not go to home. (You (pl) will not go home / You (pl) don’t go home)

Indonesian Reduplication

Also, my favorite feature of Indonesian (and Malay) grammar is the use of reduplication to form plurals and other useful words. The languages I studied previously, especially German and Arabic, have very complex rules to form plurals which often can only be memorized until you can learn what sounds right. But in Indonesian:

Satu buku – One book
Dua buku – Two books
Lima buku – Five books

In order to indicate an uncountable or non-numerical plural, Indonesian nouns are reduplicated, or repeated either fully or partially.

buku-buku – Many books
orang-orang – Many people

Orang means person and hutan means forest
An Orangutan is a ‘forest person’

This reduplication feature also indicates repetition, greater degree or extent, or a more specific application of the root word:

JALAN walk
JALAN-JALAN to stroll or go for a walk

HATI heart (symbolic)
HATI-HATI be careful

MATA eye
MATA-MATA a spy

TIBA arrive
TIBA-TIBA suddenly

Get yer fixin’s – Indonesian affixes

Indonesian grammar isn’t without it’s complications, however. There is one feature of the language which I’ve taken some time to get used to. That is the affixes which change the meanings of words. For instance, there are the prefixes me-, ber-, di-, or ti, the suffixes -an or -i, or the circumfixes me-kan, di-kan, or pe-kan. For example:

TULIS – to write
TULISAN – a piece of writing
MENULIS – to write (something)
DITULIS – to be written
MENULISKAN – to cause something to be written
DITULISKAN – to be caused to be written
PENULIS – writer or author
PENULISAN – an article or writ

These affixes can be difficult to wrap your mind around; fortunately, Indonesian speakers typically drop or shorten these affixes. So it’s not a huge deal if you don’t get them totally right.

The journey so far…

At the time of writing this, I consider myself proficient to a basic level. I am able to understand Indonesian if spoken clearly and slowly. Even otherwise, I can understand to some extent. Speaking is still a challenge because the people I know with whom I can practice are still few in number. In the future, I’ll look for more opportunities to speak and listen to Indonesian, as well as to increase my vocabulary.

For speakers of Indonesian or Malay: what are some interesting facts or features that make your language easy or hard to learn? What resources or techniques would you recommend to learners of Indonesian?

For speakers of other languages, have you considered learning Indonesian or Malay? In what ways is your language similar or different from other languages you’ve studied? Leave your answer in the comments section down below!

Be sure to subscribe to my website for more content like this in the future. You can also follow me on Twitter, where I ask and answer questions about many facets of education, including language learning. If learning Bahasa Indonesia, or any other language or subject interests you, contact me via comment, email, or Twitter and I’ll be happy to share more resources or strategies. Thank you for reading and have a nice day!

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