Climbing Mount Bahasa: Tips From a Veteran Learner

At the Wisma Bahasa Language School in Yogyakarta

Indonesian is often said to be one of the easier languages to learn, and there’s something to this claim. The language doesn’t possess a complex tense system and it uses the Latin alphabet. It has a loose grammatical structure that follows a familiar subject-verb-object order, and the plural form is marked out by simply doubling the word. Friend is teman, and so friends becomes teman-teman. Easy!

Trying to pick it up, then, doesn’t present the challenges of learning a tonal language like Chinese, or re-wiring the brain to read script from right to left. That being said, learning any second language as an adult is a difficult and arduous enterprise. And though Chinese might be the Mount Everest of second languages, and Arabic K2, Indonesian is a mountain of its own, and getting to the top requires years of dedicated study and practice. It’s more Mount Kosciuszko than Mount Everest, but it’s a mountain all the same and in my experience, there are three key difficulties which must be confronted and overcome in order to reach the summit.

Firstly, the language is a heavily affixed language. For example, nouns in Indonesian are marked out by multiple affixes, the most common of which are -an, per-an and ke-an. The tricky thing is the rules for affixes are neither simple nor consistent, and the meaning of a word changes radically depending on the affix. The words kesatuan and persatuan both share a common root word (satu, or one), and both revolve around the concept of unity, but they have distinct meanings which cannot be guessed at or derived from the affix.

A second common difficulty one meets with is the me-kan, me-i conundrum. At a basic level, these affixes denote a verb or action word, but they do so much more than that. Multiple meanings can be embedded and transmitted through these affixes, and Indonesians naturally learn these fine distinctions by osmosis growing up with the language. For non-Native speakers, though, we’ve got to learn them separately, and try to figure out which distinct meaning is being conveyed by me-kan and me-i. Furthermore, sometimes there is no discernible reason why me-kan should be used instead of me-i. Just another of those things you’ve got to memorise.

Thirdly, slang Indonesian is markedly different from formal Indonesian, to the point where it is almost a new language in itself. The sound and affixes of the language shift dramatically from formal to spoken Indonesian, and this can be discombobulating for a new learner. So after you’re done learning formal Bahasa, you’re only halfway up the mountain.

Is the climb worth it?

The benefits of learning this language, however, are manifold, and easily outstrip the difficulties listed above. This is particularly so for young Australians. Indonesia is a key security partner for Australia and if you’re interested in government employment, you’ll find yourself a more competitive prospect with this language under your belt.

Indonesia is also an escalating economic behemoth. It is already the largest economy in South East Asia, and is predicted to be the fourth largest economy in the world by 2050. And with the recent IACEPA free trade agreement signed between Australia and Indonesia, fluency in this language promises to open up exciting business opportunities for entrepreneurial Australians in fields as varied as education and commodities.

Aside from the practical benefits, the language itself is beautiful. The sound of it has a mellifluous, trance-like quality, and it is drenched in captivating metaphors and idioms.

And perhaps the central joy of learning this language is the friends you’ll make along the way.

Indonesians are naturally warm and generous people, and they’ll happily assist you in your language-learning journey. You’ll never have any trouble finding someone to talk with.

So, boeng, ayo boeng! Put on your hiking boots, take a look at the Bahasa language schools on our website, and get climbing!

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Duncan Evans

Duncan holds a B.A. in English Literature and an M.A. in United States Studies, both from the University of Sydney. In addition to Asia Options, Duncan is presently employed as a commodities journalist with the Australian Mining Review, and volunteers once a week as an English teacher with the TAFE-run Adult Migrant English Program. Following university, Duncan spent over three years living and working in Indonesia, including some two years working as an editor, translator and writer for the Jakarta Post. His fascination with Indonesia developed almost immediately. With Asia Options, Duncan hopes to introduce other young Australians to the country in the hope that they too will experience the same awe and exhilaration he felt living and working in this beautiful, complex and majestic nation.

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