Bahasa Indonesia

The kids dressed up in their Javanese clothes for Ibu Kartini day at school
The kids dressed up in their Javanese clothes for Ibu Kartini day at school

When we first planned on moving to Indonesia, we scoured the city looking for DIY language course books. It turned out that Indonesian books are not easy to find in Canada. Although we eventually discovered a few phrasebooks meant for tourists, these were not so helpful because (presumably) our day-to-day language would require more than ‘Is Mr. Tirta at home?’ and ‘No thank you, I don’t like Durian.’

Once we arrived here, we struggled with the language, but we quickly adapted a combination hand gesture / nodding / smiling process that seemed to take care of most of our needs. It helped that the majority of people we deal with regularly speak enough English for us to get by. Eventually, we took language school for a week in January, as you may remember from some of those posts. It was an immersive school – meaning the teachers did not speak English, and new vocabulary was taught using context. Or as B called it, “playing charades.” He was admittedly not very good at this style of learning. It was easier for me, but unfortunately, the few skills we did pick up have disappeared from under-use in the months since then. Our kids don’t need Bahasa at school, I don’t need Bahasa at work, and we rarely need it otherwise. It is very difficult to practice the minimal skills we do have!

I’ve always been critical of folks who move to a foreign country and can’t be bothered to learn the language. It seems so insulting and crass to act as though it’s the responsibility of the local residents to find a way to communicate with you rather than the other way around. In addition to our hypocrisy, I think we’ve also been hesitant to dive into the culture and local lifestyle because of the language barrier. We don’t feel comfortable shopping or visiting anywhere that isn’t “western” because we just cannot communicate our needs or understand how the social process works in certain situations.

So. That brings us to now, eight months in, and I’ve finally started regular language classes with a local teacher (and good friend). She is a wonderful instructor and after only a few lessons I’m finally feeling like the language is making sense. She has been helping me understand the grammar and structure – something that the other language school did not focus on at all. I still need a LOT of practice, but I think very soon I’ll be able to enjoy our adventure here a bit more.

Why am I telling you all this? Really, I just wanted to share some interesting language quirks that I’ve noticed:

Times and days are tracked differently here. You know how you say “last night I went to the cinema” on Sunday, when you mean Saturday night? Well, here, if you say “last night I went to the cinema” on Sunday – you are referring to Friday night. This is because Indonesian “days” start at sundown, so the night that just happened (Saturday night) is technically part of the same day you are still experiencing. But if is after sundown on Sunday, then “last night” means Saturday. Confusing, right? Well, apparently it is confusing for Indonesians too, because my teacher told me to just use the day of the week for clarity. So don’t say “last night,” say “Saturday night.”

You almost never say “never” but instead you say “not yet.” Like, have you ever visited China? The answer is “not yet” – even if you have no intention of going to China, there is a possibility that you might. You never know where life will take you! This is harder when asked personal questions like “Are you married?” and “Do you have kids?” Especially if you are a young foreigner without either (or even without any intentions of having either). You can’t say “no” – you have to say “not yet”… because you never know what might happen!

There is no plural. A lot of meaning is based on context, so if you’re talking about multiples of something, there’s no language distinction (for the most part). Instead, you just know the other person is talking about multiple things because you can literally see those things in front of you or you have already mentioned them in the preceding sentence. This isn’t such an issue when going from English into Indonesian, but it is an issue when going the other way. None of my Indonesian friends remember to put s on plurals. Or they put one when not needed. The same is for gender pronouns. So you only know that the person is male or female based on context. Growing up without a way to distinguish plurals or gender and then suddenly having to must be confusing. I apologize on behalf of the English language.

Similarly, there is no “to be” verb. Really. You just say things like “My name Mary” and “She from France.” All in all, the language is much simpler than English, leaving many of us learners feeling like we are speaking in baby talk. And unfortunately, that’s how Indonesians with beginner English skills sound to native English speakers – like kindergarteners. Conversely, if you did a literal translation of a moderately complex English sentence into Indonesian, it would come out with so many extra words and strange noun strings that you would sound like a crazy person. There, I’ve just explained the source of all intercultural misunderstandings.

Speaking of intercultural misunderstandings, I have a confession to make about my family. I don’t know why, but the three of them have not picked up much language but have somehow picked up a tiny bit of an Indonesian accent when speaking in English. This sounds like it would be adorable, but instead it just sounds like they are making fun. You know how tourists just speak LOUDER AND M O R E S L O W L Y to explain their point, despite the language barrier? It’s like the lite version of that. Subtle, but possibly more insulting? I’m not sure, because I haven’t wanted to stir up any trouble. So I’m telling the internet instead!


5 thoughts on “Bahasa Indonesia

  1. As a particular type of nerd, I found this post even more fascinating than the insect one. Congrats on the language skill progress!


  2. Hi Sandra, I’ve been following your adventures with each post. This one, on the language, was fascinating. I’m learning so much about the country and the culture from you. Thanks! Joan


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