Have you mastered the Indonesian language? Or did you give up?
When I first came here as a teacher about fourteen years ago, people at the school told me often how easy the Indonesian language is, so much easier than English. Well, if that is true, and I am an English teacher, you can’t prove it by me. English is nuanced and has about 300 percent more words than any other language. Word of the Day and Merriam Webster Word of the Day land in my inbox and show me words every day. Many have never seen it before and would never use it in any case. So, 300 percent more words don’t mean as much as one might think. And English grammar is not very complex either, not like German or Latin.
I studied Latin; I speak Spanish and French. And there is nothing easy about Indonesian. Indonesia is one of the earliest places on the planet to be continuously inhabited by us, homo sapiens. There is also evidence of earlier forms of us, perhaps going back 350,000 years. At last look in Wiki online, there are about 700 extant indigenous languages in Indonesia and 800 more just in Papua. The history of the Indonesian language is very dense.
The way I understand it begins with the Dutch East India Company in 1799. Once the Dutch took over, they needed a way to administer their colonial prize, and coordinate departments of the bureaucracy they were creating. They used Malay extensively and combined it with “loan words” from Dutch, English, Javanese, and many other sources. It was not until 1945 and Indonesian independence that Bahasa Indonesia became the lingua franca of Indonesia. At the same time, many people who had the benefit of good schools learned Dutch. Some of those “old timers” are still around and I have met a number of them.
It seems remarkable that 270 million people could learn and agree to speak a common language in only a few generations. But they did and, at the same time, continued to know their local indigenous languages: Javanese, Sundanese, Madurese and so many others. Even Lombok, off Bali, has its own language and yes, of course, Balinese. It is an astounding linguistic diversity. And so, the idea that Indonesian is “easy” does not hold up once one gets beyond “Selamat pagi” and “Apa kabar?”
In Surabaya, where I am, to be good at “Suroboyoan” you need to know a lot of Javanese and Madurese too as most non-Chinese people are Javanese and there are thousands of Madurese people here. I sense that I can’t be really good at Indonesian without knowing Javanese.
That is some background that might explain why mastering Indonesian is challenging. However, becoming fluent and competent is possible with a lot of work. I have been studying intensively for ten years with a good teacher in Bali. We met when my wife and I lived in Bali for two years before moving back to Surabaya, my wife’s hometown. And my teacher in Bali, Trias, and I have continued online since then. For many years we talked for two hours a week and now it is down to one. She has extensive experience teaching Indonesian, is fluent in English, and has a Master’s Degree in Anthropology.
After working together for over ten years, she has become one of my best friends and we share our lives and our thoughts freely, all in Indonesian. We use Google docs and because she is very fast on the keyboard, each lesson produces two or three pages of notes on vocabulary and grammar. I can talk fluently about anything in Indonesian.
Doesn’t that sound great? Well, it sounds great but what happens out in the world? When I walk in the morning with my neighbours and talk with someone one on one, I do quite well. But when they are talking among themselves, I am totally lost. Maybe I have an idea of their conversation but not much, to be honest. The reason is they don’t speak as I speak with my teacher or my wife or with our driver. They speak Suroboyoan, the vernacular, and it is all mixed up with numerous references that I just don’t know. This is frustrating and is why so many people achieve some competence in Indonesian basics and go no further.
What saves me is that I enjoy learning for its own sake and I am very persistent about trying to be good at the things that interest me. At the same time, I have doubts that I will ever be able to understand the language the way I want to, the way it is spoken casually among friends. The positive part is I can express myself and they can understand me and I can understand their answers once they realise I actually can speak Indonesian, which comes mostly as a shock. They are often so taken aback by a bule speaking their language, that even if I say something very simple, they don’t understand it until they flip that switch in their brain that says, “Oh he knows Indonesian!”
This is not unique to Indonesia. I teach a lot of people in China and Japan. A Chinese adult student told me he was good at writing and could express himself well in the workplace but when his colleagues got together, he was lost, just like me. I could only commiserate.
A major factor we adult learning the language have to understand is that it is much easier to progress in language mastery when we are young. It is just a sad fact. I watched our little grandson, who is age four now, go from no speech to total speech in a couple of years. That is remarkable really when I think of the efforts I have put in. But, of course, I speak English mostly and he is in an all-Indonesian situation.
For those of you who want some other ways to improve your skill, I do have some suggestions. I listen to Indonesian radio when I have time: I read some simple books with English on the facing page. I constantly try to learn new words and how to use them. That is probably what I do most. And I ask a lot of questions to my wife and our driver, Pak Rom. He and I have helped each other tremendously. He is educated, Javanese, and very motivated to be good at English. This is symbiosis!
On a closing note, I recommend that you think of improvement in Indonesian as a process, a never-ending one like many of the important skills and talents we try to develop. Most important to know is that with every increase in our knowledge of the language, our appreciation of our expat life here also increases. It is very much a win-win situation.