Acquiring language: Bahasa Indonesia
I have been studying the Indonesian language since May 2011, and now I can speak it well enough to have a simple conversation — a very simple conversation, nothing too complicated (I’m not at all quick at learning new languages). I don’t know enough to give a lecture completely in Bahasa Indonesia, unfortunately.
People speak a similar language in three other countries: Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore. There are numerous differences in word meanings between their language and the official one in Indonesia (example: kereta for car in Malaysia; mobil for car in Indonesia, where kereta means a horse cart), but the grammar is the same.
Here is my favorite example of what makes Bahasa Indonesia difficult for me:
- Itu rumah besar. (That is a big house.)
- Rumah itu besar. (That house is big.)
- Rumah besar itu. (The [that] big house.)
- Rumah yang besar. (The house that is big.)
Bahasa Indonesia is the national language of Indonesia, and it’s the language of instruction in the schools and in most universities. However, for most people here, it is not their first language. There are 726 regional languages in Indonesia (source). Javanese has the most speakers (75.2 million), and Sundanese (27 million), which is spoken in and around Bandung, where I live, is the second most common. Of all those regional languages, 13 account for almost 70 percent of the population of Indonesia — so some of them have few few living speakers today.
When Indonesia became a nation, after World War II, there had already been a long campaign to establish Bahasa Indonesia as the national language, in part because both Javanese and Sundanese have hierarchical levels for speaking to people of higher or lower status, and in part because it was smarter to choose a language that was not the property of any single ethnic group in the new nation.
Some interesting things I have learned about language here:
(1) In Yogyakarta I met an American anthropologist who has been studying life in a particular village near there for about 40 years. He had made regular visits to the village annually for many years, but recently he had been absent for about 10 years because of obligations in the United States. I asked him what had changed the most in that time, and his answer was the language of the young people. Ten years ago, when teens were hanging around, they usually spoke in Javanese to one another. Now they speak mostly Bahasa Indonesia.
(2) There’s an idea that Indonesians whose first language is a regional one, and who speak that language at home with their parents, will be adept at learning foreign languages later on, because when they go to school at age 6 or 7, they must do everything in Bahasa Indonesia.
(3) My teacher of Bahasa Indonesia did not learn any regional language as a child, because her parents, who met as university students, had each come from a different language group. So when her parents speak to each other, or to their children, they always speak in Bahasa Indonesia — they don’t have any other language in common. (She mastered English while living in America for two years as a high school student while her father completed his graduate studies there.)
(4) Many people from farming communities in Central Java, where Javanese is spoken, come to Bandung to find work. So even in a Sundanese region, their children’s first language might be Javanese. According to one of my colleagues, however, teens around here like to use the Sundanese language, so it’s common for high school students to converse in a mix of Bahasa Indonesia and Sundanese — maybe with a fair amount of English thrown in — even if their first language was Javanese.
(5) According to my teacher of Bahasa Indonesia (guru bahasa saya), who also teaches courses in formal Bahasa Indonesia to native speakers, many Indonesians find it challenging to write correctly in the national language. They can speak fluently, and to the ear, their spoken Bahasa Indonesia is very correct. But writing the language demands more structure, some different verb forms, and more attention paid to prepositional words such as pada. (You can shorten and compress a lot in speaking, but in written language, you should not.) A Fulbright colleague who grew up in Indonesia but was educated in the United States told me there is very, very little emphasis on reading or writing in the Indonesian schools, and he says that accounts for the poor writing skills of many educated Indonesian people.
Bahasa Indonesia is the third foreign language I have studied. I had three years of Spanish in high school and one full year at university. My vocabulary is okay, but the verb forms still confound me. I had two years of spoken and written Japanese at the Japan Society in New York, 20 years ago, but I’ve forgotten most of it; the kanji ultimately defeated my efforts. I really enjoy learning Bahasa Indonesia, and I hope I’m able to continue after I return home.
This post was inspired by an opinion column in today’s Jakarta Post, written by A. Chaedar Alwasilah: Government indifference hindering literacy in local languages. I was also fascinated by this account of translating from English to Bahasa, by Indonesian author Julia Suryakusuma: Mind your (Indonesian) language! (also from the Jakarta Post).
P.S. As Indonesia is the fourth-largest country in the world (population about 250 million*), it might be time for the rest of the world to pay more attention to Bahasa Indonesia. Add to that Malaysia (29 million), Singapore (5 million), and Brunei (only 400,000), and the number of speakers of Bahasa Indonesia clearly exceeds that of speakers of Japanese (Japan: 126 million people), for example, and maybe even of French (add up the populations of France, Quebec, Haiti, etc.; then add in north Africa; one total I found for French speakers worldwide is 126 million). However, the reasons for learning the Indonesian language rest mainly on spoken communication, as there is not a large literary corpus.
* All population figures from Index Mundi, 2012.