For most people, the Indonesian language is without doubt one of the easiest languages to learn. It has very simple grammatical structure, it has no tenses and it uses the same alphabet as English and many other languages. Even better, the language is very phonetic and therefore words are very easy to spell.
Among non-native speakers of Indonesian, there are six basic ability stages:
1. Not a word: This is obviously the level everyone is at before they start learning and the level at which some expats remain, even if they live in Indonesia for 50 years. Many of those who do progress from stage one to stage two or beyond may as well stay at stage one because they speak Indonesian with their native accent and no Indonesian understands a word they say anyway.
2. Taxi language: The basic vocabulary of this language is four words; kiri, kanan, terus and “stop”, and for the majority of expats each of these words must be accompanied by animated pointing and gesturing – regular pointing left or right for kiri or kanan, index finger straight down and sweeping forward for terus, and vigorous tapping on the driver’s shoulder for “stop”. At the end, the more adventurous expat may add the word berapa in a questioning tone to find out how much the journey cost, but the majority will just read the meter, hand over the amount rounded up to the nearest ten thousand and get out. A few will add a cursory ‘makasih’ as they exit the taxi. There are, however, some expats who will engage in a tense and time-consuming stand-off with the driver as he fumbles animatedly in his pockets pretending to look for change while hoping the expat will get tired of waiting and let him keep it. I have seen this battle go on for quite some time when my friend Jock the English teacher gets out of a taxi.
3. Enough to get into trouble: At this stage, non-native speakers of Indonesian can confidently find their way round in taxis, order in restaurants and astound visitors (and fellow expats who are still at stage one). As long as everything goes to plan this level is quite impressive, but things can go horribly wrong when Indonesians assume that the expats’ Indonesian is fluent and start speaking to them at the same speed they would speak to an Indonesian. This is when expats shopping for a new pair of shoes end up going home with a bag of sugar and a toothbrush.
4. Conversational: At this stage the expat speaks pretty good Indonesian and can actually get through a conversation with an Indonesian by understanding most of what is said and nodding knowingly at the right times. Occasionally there will be a word or phrase that the expat has not heard before, but generally the meaning can be gleaned from the context and the expat will go away with a fair idea of what the conversation was about, and the Indonesian will go home convinced the expat speaks fluent Indonesian. Later on, both find out how wrong they were.
5. Fluent spoken: This is the stage where Indonesians compliment expats on their Indonesian and ask how long they have been in the country. Every possible answer is met with an expression of surprise, either because the expat has been here for such a long time or because the expat has learned such good Indonesian in such a short space of time. Either way, the conversation will often go into areas that most foreigners are not really comfortable talking about with somebody they just met, so the expat will end up pretending to be at stage one to avoid sharing the more embarrassing details of their lives.
6. Fluent spoken and written: Very few will reach this stage, and those who do will sit proudly in Indonesian restaurants smoking kreteks and reading Kompas. Many will also wear a batik all the time, bring their hand up to their chest after they shake hands with you and drive like there’s no tomorrow.
The vast majority of expats will be somewhere between stages two and three no matter how long they have been in Indonesia. What stage are you at?