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Acquiring language: Bahasa Indonesia

7 July 2012

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.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. 18 July 2012 10:33 am

    I think you need something clear first when learning Indonesian language. You need to know wether it is adjective, phrase or not and so on. It is true that Indonesian language has basic differences between speaking and writing, in terms of structure. As Indonesian, I agree Indonesian language is so complex, except the grammar.

    I’ll use your favorite example. I don’t think you do it apple to apple from Indonesian language to English. At least, that’s what I know when learning English.

    – Itu rumah besar (this is not a common sentence in Indonesian language, I think)
    – Rumah itu besar (This is plain sentence. Your translate is correct. But normally, Indonesian will write like this: “The house is big” or “That house is big”.)
    – Rumah besar itu (I will go with this: That big house)
    – Rumah yang besar (I, and maybe other Indonesians, will use: What a big house).

  2. 9 October 2012 7:03 pm

    I need a citation for a project on articles in Indonesian do you know what i could source?

  3. 9 October 2012 8:39 pm

    Not sure what you’re asking for, John.

  4. 5 November 2012 11:22 pm

    Mantabh si Gan.. (You are marvelous!)

    do not you feel dizzy, with so many language in Indonesia, sometimes people speaks with the same Bahasa Indonesia, but really different accent
    Orang Batak (bataknese) with the strong ‘e’ or orang Jawa (javanaise) whom speaks using too many vocals ‘o’

    Greets from Bogor!

  5. sri yono (jenenge ketok joto tho) permalink
    14 February 2013 8:52 am

    wow memang luar biasa. saya tertarik sekali dengan artikelnya. kulo tiang jawi kang ( saya orang jawa “Javanese” mas ). kalau mau belajar bahasa indonesia or basa jawa. you can contact me on fb

  6. sri yono (jenenge ketok jowo tho) permalink
    14 February 2013 8:53 am

    eh ada yang keliru sri yono (jenenge ketok joto tho) bukan joto tapi jowo

  7. Amyr permalink
    24 June 2013 11:10 am

    Hi everyone, I am interested in learning Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia as well, some of the words sounds alike but has different meaning which makes me confuse. Can anybody help to advice me as to which language should I learn first? – thanks

  8. wiil-iam permalink
    2 August 2013 8:59 am

    both of them are similar. when you study the one, it will be very helpfull for the other. both have their uniques. i guess, the biggest difference that we need to consider is vocabulary. Actually, every word in both have a same meaning. You can check it out in Kamus Dewan Bahasa (malaysia) or Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia (indonesia). but they have their prevalences even though they have a same root language. and this prevalences is caused by their each society.
    we know that we cant confine the expansion of a language in this world, moreover in this globalization era. Malaysian proud of their language by keep the purity of theirs, at least that is what their linguist said. Indonesian proud of theirs by regard the expansion just like a language dynamism effect.
    both dialect are absolutely dissimilar. Indonsian’s are slowly pronouncing the word and clearly , especially in “r” (like American English). Otherwise Malaysian’s are softly and rather quickly (just like British English).
    big= besar
    indonesian will pronounce clearly in r .And malaysian will pronounce softly without r.

    very= sangat
    indonesian will pronounce clearly in t , otherwise malaysian will pronounce softly as though the “t” are disapear.

    both of them are same. choose which one you like to learn. and the other will be easier. just like British and American english. But I prefer choose the American to British because the pronounciation are slowly. Although the American are rather rough. but for beginner….? why not?

    good luck for amyr

  9. halka permalink
    22 September 2013 10:16 pm

    You seem to have left out some punctuation marks and lost some context in translation!!

    Itu rumah besar! (That is a big house!)
    Itu rumah besar? (Is that the big house?)
    Itu rumah, besar? (Is that house big?)
    Rumah itu besar. (That house is big.)
    Rumah itu besar? (Is the house big?)
    Rumah besar itu. (That big house.)
    Rumah besar itu? (Is that the big house.)
    Rumah yang besar. (The big house.)

    This I think would fit both Malaysian and Indonesian Bahasa.

  10. 22 September 2013 10:57 pm

    Terima kasih banyak, Halka!

    I especially like your comma in: “Itu rumah, besar?” Very helpful!

    When Indonesians tell English speakers it is sooo easy to learn Indonesian, I think they do not understand how difficult this is for us. Sometimes I can’t think of the correct meanings of “anak ayam” and “ayam anak.” It’s just hard!!

  11. wanua tpisring permalink
    28 September 2013 8:23 am

    @Mindy: really? even I (and many of us) think tenses (like in your original language) must be more difficult than “the big house” problem 🙂

    good luck in learning indonesian

  12. 29 September 2013 12:30 am

    @wanua tpisring – Yes, I know, tenses must be insanely difficult for anyone who is not used to them. I find tenses in European languages difficult (so many irregular verbs!).

  13. noe permalink
    19 February 2014 2:16 am

    Hi Mindy, I live in Bandung also. You’re doing great learning Bahasa Indonesia. I can accompany you to learn Bahasa deeper and it’d be great if I can accompany some foreigners as well to learn it (if you have some friends that still learning it).

    Best regards,

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