Indonesian Language Learning – Bahasa Lokal

Local Language, local hangouts. Enjoying some snacks at Nusa Cendana University.
Local Language, local hangouts. Enjoying some snacks at Nusa Cendana University.


Language learning has been a fascinating and rewarding experience for me. There is an amazing sense of achievement when you first become able to communicate in a language that you didn’t develop as a child. As any language learner may know, there are ups and downs along the way. There are just as many pitfalls as feelings of accomplishment. In my experience, many of the pitfalls centred around the use of informal spoken language.

While living in Tokyo, I found it frustrating when my tutors insisted on teaching me only “proper” Japanese. So it was mainly formal language that I learned and I was left almost unable to talk to and understand most of the people I had met at that point.

I’ve had similar communication experiences while learning Indonesian. In 2013 I completed a Diploma of Language with Charles Darwin University and, even though we were exposed to informal language, my spoken Indonesian is almost always commented on as being very formal.

The inability to talk in a casual way does not help when you are trying to make friends so I endeavoured to learn the local lingo. But when it comes to learning bahasa lokal in Indonesia, which one do you choose? I started out by learning slang words like gue (I), aja (only), ngak (no) and dong (no real meaning as far as I know). This kind of slang is spoken by most of the Indonesians I know in Sydney and is the slang that you find on websites when you google “Indonesian Slang”.

As it turns out this slang is most commonly used around Jakarta. Happily, thanks to a recent AIYA event, I discovered a recently published book called Belajar Bahasa Gaul which focuses on the Jakarta variety of slang and ways to chit chat in everyday language.

Local language, Local knowledge: 'Bukit Bintang'. Formerly WW2 Japanese fortress, now a popular place to view sunsets.
Local language, local hangouts: ‘Bukit Bintang’. Formerly WW2 Japanese fortress, now a popular place to view sunsets.

Pitfall! Thanks largely to my participation in the UniBRIDGE Project most of my time in Indonesia is spent in Kupang, in East Nusa Tenggara. As it turns out, people in Kupang generally speak their own local language that differs significantly to the Jakarta variety. Thus, I learned that beta = gue, sa = aja, son = sonde which is ngak and dong actually has a meaning (they) and that pi is pergi (go)!

I have not yet found an Indonesian language textbook that includes the unique vocabulary of Kupang. However, I recently stumbled upon a great paper on “Kupang Malay” which you can find here.

At times, I still feel like I am in an Indonesian language learning pit and going nowhere, however my language learning journeys are continuing. I realise that it has all been worth it when I have breakthrough moments. When I’m able to understand people during conversations. When I’m able to apply my newly learned bahasa lokal and chat to someone in a language that is most comfortable for them, their own.


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Chris is the Program Coordinator for UniBRIDGE Project and the Community Outreach Officer for AIYA NSW. Chris has lived and worked in Japan and France and spent some time in Eastern Indonesia. Chris has completed a Diploma of Languages (Indonesian) and a Master of Arts in International Relations which included a research thesis that focused on identity politics in Japan and Japanese refugee policies.

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