Learning Indonesian – A Native English Speaker's Perspective

Bahasa Indonesia:
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Indonesian is the first language that I have really tried to learn. I studied French and Italian for limited amounts of time during my schooling, but only because I was forced to learn them. With Indonesian it was different – I study Indonesian because I love the language.

However, as a native English speaker, learning Indonesian can (in the beginning) seem strange. Because Indonesian has a sort-of-reversed word order to English, many native English speakers find it hard to rewire how they look at language.

For example,

This is my house (becomes) Rumah saya ini.

In Indonesian “rumah” means house, “saya” is me or my, and “ini” is this. For someone who has just begun learning Indonesian this changed word order will be the first real challenge. However, it does not have to. Try, for instance, to snot think in terms of “my this” or “my that.” Instead, you should try to think of things in terms of “this is mine” or “that is mine.”

If you apply this logic when forming sentences in Indonesian you will reshape the way you approach the language.

The omission of certain words 

Most beginners like to directly translate English to Indonesia, yet of this were possible Google translate would make everyone a polyglot. Moreover, in Indonesian certain words are/can be omitted – that in beginning can be very confusing.

For example,

What will we be doing today (becomes) Apa yang kami lakukan hari ini. 

In the Indonesian equivalency of the example English sentence, the word “be” is absent. As “be” is the integral verb in the example English sentence its omission can be confusing. Beyond this, the word “will” is also absent, that only serves the confuse students more. The trick to overcoming word omission as an English speaker learning Indonesian is either to a.) understand that the context of the sentence implies inclusion, and b.) to understand that as long as the same message is conveyed certain words may not be needed. Tediously translating Indonesian into English word-for-word will not only waste your time, but will also be incorrect.

“-ku” will become your new best friend. 

-ku has a similar functionary to the possessive apostrophe in English, however in this case -ku means my/mine. When you first begin writing sentences in Indonesian they will look something like this,

“Saya mau pergi ke rumah saya dan mencari topi saya yang baru.” In that sentence alone I have said “me/my/I” three times, that when spoken with other Indonesians will sound unnatural. However, in Indonesian you can express the same sentiment with the inclusion of “-ku,” For example,

“Saya mau pergi ke rumahku dan mencari topiku yang baru.” 
Not only does this sentence sound more natural, it also avoids the overuse of me/my/and I. For English to Indonesian language learners understanding the context and usage of “ku” will aid you greatly.

Of course there are numerous other issue you might, or have already found when learning Indonesian as an English speaker. However, language doesn’t happen overnight and it will be an uphill battle. My advice to anyone who wants to begin learning Bahasa Indonesia is to stop thinking in English when reading, writing, or speaking in Indonesian. If you let your mind flow you will find it much easier to engage with Bahasa Indonesia.

Selamat belajar!


Sam has been learning Bahasa Indonesia for three years and contributes to an Indonesian-specific blog www.anotherindonesia.com 

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