Jul 22, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Essay: Testing out my Bahasa Indonesia

Published: Jul 09, 2024
We need to learn more about each other. If we do, we will find that in many ways we have much in common

Patrick J Mahony

Having worked in Indonesia as an English teacher for a few periods many years ago, I recently decided to go back and travel slowly across Java. I have studied the national language, bahasa Indonesia, and I have experienced the diversity of Indonesian cultures. I can express my basic needs in the national language, so I wanted to test out the development of my communication skills. In summary, my trip lasted two months, and by the time I left Jakarta I was exhausted, my language skills were insufficient for the job, and I’m not sure I learnt much more - except that it can be hard to understand responses, for various reasons.

I travelled across Java east to west as far as Jakarta, on buses, trains and ojek (back of the motorcycle). This meant that I spent a lot of time talking to sopir (drivers) and people in warung (cafes) and losmen. Despite having spent a couple of decades learning Bahasa Indonesia, I could neither understand nor be understood reliably in my travels. At my level of expenditure (low), I am dealing with people who have had little education, and thus very little learning of that language, which is only introduced to most people in school. It is rarely a first language, and therein lies part of my problem: people have grown up with perhaps a local language, and then bahasa Jawa rendah (low), and then a little bahasa Indonesia. 

It is hard

I didn’t notice a lot more bule (white folks) in Java, but one is no longer stared at by children; there is instead a studied nonchalance by adults. But just as it was hard for me to find people to communicate with, it is hard for Indonesian learners of English to find speakers with whom to practise.

My experience teaching in a sekolah pesantren (Islamic school), which are like the local public schools, showed me that the level of learning, especially languages like English, is very low, and students are discouraged from speaking in class. Children learn many local languages by ear, and don't necessarily recognise the differences; they might be mixing two or three languages without knowing it. Then there’s the problems for the foreign listener of fluency and elision of words. The learner might also be mispronouncing words. A small error of pronunciation and you won’t be understood. I was sitting on the back of an ojek for nearly an hour while we sought a Fame Hotel, as I pronounced it, until a helpful bystander said, ‘You mean fam-e?’ (pronounced like ‘farmer’), and from there we were OK.

However, people are always willing to answer you if you ask questions like ‘Is the kraton down there?’ ’Yes’ is the inevitable answer. Eventually you learn not to ask a yes/no question, because the answer is always yes; they are reluctant to say no. Just keep this white dude happy! Their standard question is ‘Where are you from?’ and they often offer a few random suggestions, like ‘Germany? Switzerland?’ in case you’ve forgotten. I met many people in Malioboro in Yogyakarta who, when I answered ‘Australia’, would respond in a broad Aussie accent, just to show off their language skills.

But finding people to easily talk to, if one’s grasp of spoken bahasa Indonesia is weak, is not easy. When people can understand this, they will slow down and talk plainly. However, many people are willing to talk but don’t understand how hard it is for the visitor to comprehend their answers. On the other hand, many people will ask questions, which can grow tiresome, but it’s worth the effort to respond to them all. Each person is a new encounter for them, and there’s a culture of treating all human encounters as important, and also a strong presumption of sopan santun, or politeness, and thus a reluctance to display negative emotion. 

We need to learn

One can bring prejudices from home which are not to be confused with reality. For example, where we expect women will be less assertive, they do have strong roles in local business as well as in the home. The female housekeepers in each of two losmen I stayed in were articulate and informative about Islam and local politics. Where tradition may seem to place them in the kitchen, they also find places in entertaining and contributing to hospitality and all the creative arts which attract us to Indonesia. However, I did notice that only a small minority of the warung I frequented were run by women. So much in Indonesia is different from what we are used to. We need to learn more about each other, whether we are visitors to or residents of this great country. If we do, we will find, in chance meetings or longer-term relationships, that in many ways we have much in common. The thing that always strikes me deeply is the love of children, their own and others’. Family is everything. 

One can hardly hope to penetrate another culture without a means of communication, and that is where we in Australia are falling behind dramatically in our learning of Asian languages in recent decades. Language is culture, and if we don’t try to learn some bahasa Indonesia, and enable our kids to learn it at school, the chances of any of us making links to this great, diverse and fascinating country are very limited. It’s an easy language to learn, but a fascinating introduction to a rich history influenced by a myriad of different cultural and linguistic inputs. Federal government needs to step up to support the teaching of the national language of our nearest, largest and most important neighbour. If we go to Indonesia with a little knowledge of their language and culture, we show a desire to relate, and they will respond. 

Pat Mahony (padraic063@gmail.com) is a long-term student of Indonesian language and culture. A retired English teacher in high schools and in ESL/EFL, he has worked in various parts of the archipelago teaching English. He has recently returned from two months travelling across Java, taking the opportunity to try out, not with great success, his ability to communicate with ordinary Indonesians.

Inside Indonesia 156: Apr-Jun 2024

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