Expat Life: Learning Indonesian

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Indonesian is, to say the least, an obscure language. Few people outside of the country speak it, with the exception of Malaysia and Brunei.

Many of its words come from Dutch (thank the traders), Arabic (thank the Muslims), and English (thank the U.S. military and the media).

Is Indonesian easy to learn?

Well, yes and no. There are a lot of nuances, but the basics of the language are pretty easy to learn. They use the same western alphabet, thank goodness.

Also, there no past/present/future tenses, no masculine or feminine, no first- or second-person agreement, and the grammar is very similar to English.

Words are pronounced as they are spelled, and if you make a ch sound whenever you see a c, you’ll be all set.

Sign in front of a protestant church in Bali. Fence in foreground. Some of the words are easy to understand.
Many Indonesian words are easy to figure out.

Easy ways to learn basic Indonesian words and phrases

Here’s what I did: When I realized we might actually be visiting the country I found free Indonesian language lessons online, downloaded the MP3s to my audio player, and got serious.

Okay, not that serious. I studied for a few days, then forgot about it for a week or two, then picked it up again for another few days. Each time I did, I mentally reviewed what I could remember and tried to create sentences and phrases. And some of it began to stick.

It really began to stick when I later decided to invest in the premium membership. The printed study guides and expanded lessons made things a lot easier to understand. Plus, the fact that I’d paid money for it made me more serious about getting my money’s worth.

Somewhere along the way I found a free online flash card site called Quizlet and was shocked to discover someone had already created the flash cards for my Learning Indonesian lessons. I cannot tell you how helpful Quizlet was. Many of its learning exercises are games, and because it’s fun I sometimes lost track of how much time I’d spent on it.

I sure wish school had been like that when I was young….

Putting my beginning Indonesian to use

Even when I had been in the country for only a week, I was quite surprised by how much I could actually understand.

Trying to use the few basic Indonesian vocabulary words I know has seriously helped to reinforce things.

I’m not good at it, but a little is better than nothing, and it’s pretty fun to see the reactions of the hotel staff, store clerks, taxi drivers and the Indonesian family we know when they hear bahasa Indonesia come out of my mouth.

Indonesian woman in the countryside of Bali. She's got a basket on her head and giving two thumbs up.

I’ve made some major mistakes though, don’t get me wrong. But here’s what’s cool: Despite my many boo-boos, not one person has laughed at me yet.

Perhaps they’re in shock that a bule (white person) would make the effort to speak with them. Or maybe they’re just kind. No matter: I enjoy trying to communicate with them and it’s fun pretending – even if only for a moment or two – that I’m a local.

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Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to around 60 countries. Her insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages has inspired her to create As We Saw It with her husband Dan, a professional photographer. Her goal is to make travel easier for others and to offer a brief escape to another land.

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