Learning Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian)

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Before departing my mentor asked me, “What are your goals for this trip?”  An innocuous question uttered with piercing intent, or at least from the lips of a man whom I know to value every word.  He is a poet.

At the time I was embarrassed and surprised to find I couldn’t answer the question.  To most, I could come up with a sly, passable statement that would satisfy, and probably inspire.  To him, I openly admitted that I hadn’t a clue.

The Fulbright program is first a cultural exchange.  Our role is to act as ambassadors of culture who are placed in schools for ease of access.  After two years with Teach For America, I knew that my time in the classroom had to be for more than academic achievement.  After two years with TFA I knew that more learning happens outside the classroom than in it.

Upon reflection, one of the few goals I landed on was to become conversationally fluent in Bahasa Indonesia.  Already I had half studied too many languages, three years of Spanish in high school, a year of Mandarin in college, among others.  Never had I lived in the country where the language was spoken.  I intend to use this opportunity.

The Indonesian language is not terribly difficult to learn.  Like Mandarin, there are no conjugations, but rather tense is framed by a time-denoting word like ‘yesterday’, ‘tomorrow’, or ‘this morning’.  “Kemerin, saya pergi ke pasar.” “Yesterday, I go to market.”

The most difficult part is building vocabulary.  I know roughly 1,500 words, the equivalent of a 3-4 year old.  After one month I can effectively communicate basic needs, wants, and desires.  I can catch a bus to another city, and make it back safely.  I can order in a restaurant and share small talk with my neighbors.  What makes vocabulary acquisition so difficult here is that two languages are spoken regularly on the island of Java: Bahasa Indonesia and Javanese.

Native speakers use them interchangeably and weave each language into their speech.  For a non-native learner this can be somewhat confusing.  At times I will be fully engaged, following a conversation and then completely fall out of phase as a Javanese phrase is used.

It is an enlightening experience teaching a foreign language while learning one.  It provides a unique perspective on the struggles my students are facing learning English, because I am experiencing them myself.  Understanding where misconceptions and breakdowns will arise is an incredibly important skill as a teacher.  Reflecting carefully on where my breakdowns occur I am able to adjust my teaching methods to avoid these.

Speaking too quickly is one.  When thinking about a complex concept as we speak, usually something we haven’t prepared or thought adequately about before, we use more words and less concise sentences.  Consider answering the question, “What ingredients are in a peanut butter jelly sandwich?” compared to, “Why do ocean tides change?”

Another is the use of idioms – colloquial metaphors.  It is shocking how often we use cliché and metaphor in everyday language.  It’s a good rule of thumb to avoid using idioms when teaching a foreign language.  One of my students hit the nail on the head and got a round of applause when she pointed out a few Indonesian idioms I needed to learn.  Some of my favorites are:

“Malu, malu kucing” = shy, shy cat

Used to describe a shy person.

“Tidak enak badan” = not delicious body

“I’m feeling sick.”

Indonesians are notably economical with their words. When meeting each other people say, “Apa kabar?” (How are you?) and the response is, “Baik baik saja” (I’m well/fine) usually shortened to just “baik.”  In English, it is polite to respond with, “And you?” or “How are you?”  In the Indonesian culture this is often dropped.  Similarly, I often hear, “Mau ke mana?” (Want to where?), which suffices for “Where do you want to go?”  For a person learning the language these shortened phrases can be difficult to decipher.  However, there is something very comfortable and beautiful in using fewer words.