If you want to learn an Asian language spoken by more than 200 million people, but are put off by the complexities of languages such as Japanese and Chinese, then Bahasa Indonesian, the official language of Indonesia, may very well be the language for you. Even a basic knowledge of Indonesian will greatly enrich the traveling experience of anyone wanting to visit this vast tropical archipelago comprising more than 16,000 islands, including the famous resort island of Bali, as very few Indonesians outside the main cities can speak English.
Bahasa Indonesia is based on Malay, an Austronesian (or Malayo-Polynesian) language. Quite unusually for a national language, however, only a small percentage of Indonesians speak it as their mother tongue. For most of them it is a second language. This unusual state of affairs can be attributed to Indonesia’s rich ethnic diversity – there are some 300-plus ethnic groups – meaning that regional or local languages continue to play an important role throughout the archipelago. It was only with independence in 1945 after 350 years of Dutch rule that Bahasa Indonesia became the official language of the state.
Bahasa Indonesia is therefore a unifying force, binding together the many strands of this diverse nation. The government recognizes the important role that Bahasa Indonesian can play in cementing national unity, and it is for this reason that the language is used for administrative purposes, at all levels of the educational system, as well as in the mass media.
Part of the language’s attraction for foreigners is its simplicity – it only takes a couple of weeks or so to learn the basics necessary for essential communication. Fortunately, Indonesian is written in Latin script, making it much easier to learn than say, Thai. It is also highly phonetic, with the pronunciation of words being exactly as they are written.
There are six pure vowel sounds (‘e’ can be pronounced in two different ways) and three diphthongs (‘ai’, ‘au’, and ‘oi’). As for the consonant phonemes, the most difficulty for English speakers learning the Indonesian language is usually provided by the letter ‘c’, which is always pronounced like the ch in chess. Language learners may also have problems with the letter ‘r’, which is trilled or flapped, unlike any sound in the English language.
The basic word order, like many languages, is subject-verb-object. Thankfully, verbs are not inflected for person or number, and neither are there any verb tenses. The tense is denoted by time adverbs such as kemarin (yesterday) and by other words such as sudah (already), belum (not yet) and pernah (ever), which are some of the most commonly used words in the Indonesian language. Thus, to say that we would go to Bali tomorrow we could say saya pergi ke Bali besok, which is word-for-word ‘I go to Bali tomorrow’, while if we wanted to say we had already been there we could say saya sudah pergi ke Bali, which is word-for-word ‘I already go to Bali’ and if we went there last week we could say saya pergi ke Bali minggu lalu, which is word-for-word ‘I go to Bali last week’.
Indonesian grammar is to a large extent non-sexist in nature. Nouns do not have a gender associated with them. There is also no grammatical gender, such that the Indonesian word dia is used for ‘he’ or ‘she’ and the word nya is used for ‘his’ or ‘hers’. Many words that refer to people (such as family members and professions) are the same for both sexes. As such, kakak can refer to either an ‘older brother’ or ‘older sister’ and pacar can mean either ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’.
Plurals are formed by simply repeating a word, but only when not implied by the context. As such, anak anak means ‘children’, although ‘one hundred children’ is seratus anak as the numeral makes it clear that we are talking about more than one child.
Indonesian vocabulary draws from a number of foreign languages. Reflecting the influence of colonization, the Indonesian language contains many words from Dutch – such as bis for ‘bus’, kopi for ‘coffee’, and rokok for ‘cigarette’ - and some from Portuguese – such as sabun for ‘soap’ and jendela for ‘window’. With around 90 percent of the country’s citizens following the religion of Islam, Bahasa Indonesia has also adopted many Arabic words such as khusus, meaning ‘special’ and maaf, meaning ‘sorry’. And on the back of the country’s rapid economic development, it is now absorbing English words at a tremendous rate, especially those from the fields of business, science, and medicine.
Start learning the language by first focusing on the standard greetings and pleasantries, the numbers and the basic grammar, and then on building up a good vocabulary. The best way to learn, of course, is by visiting Indonesia, where you will have every opportunity to practice with the locals, who are well known for their friendly and polite manner. Bahasa Indonesia can also be learnt at some language schools in the capital city Jakarta should you prefer a more methodical approach to learning the language. So if you decide to take the plunge and learn Indonesian, then ‘good luck’ or, as they say in Bahasa Indonesia, semoga suksess!