Based on the Malay trade dialect, Bahasa Indonesia is the national language of the Republic of Indonesia. It unites the over 254 million people of Indonesia (2014), whose native tongue may be one of the over 300 distinct languages or regional dialects. Older people may speak some Dutch and English is the foreign language of choice for business, tourism and academia.
While it may be technically possible for foreigners to live in Jakarta, Bali, or other big cities without learning/speaking Bahasa Indonesia, it is highly recommended that you obtain a working knowledge of the Indonesian national language. An inability to communicate in Bahasa Indonesia will cut you off from the mainstream of society, and dealing with those Indonesians who don’t speak your foreign language will be very difficult. By not learning the language, you also deny yourself the rich cultural experience of fully communicating with those from another culture. Indonesians are very appreciative of foreigners who make the effort to learn Bahasa Indonesia and build relationships with them. Both business and personal relationships with Indonesians will improve because of the effort made to learn their language.
Learning Bahasa Indonesia
The best time to start learning Bahasa Indonesia is before you even make your move to Indonesia, however it may be difficult to find language materials in your home country. You may want to ask your sponsoring company to help you obtain CDs and books several months before you move, so that you can start becoming used to the sound of the language and start familiarizing yourself with its structure and vocabulary. Another option is joining online courses. There are free online Indonesian courses available, even though the materials offered are fairly limited and mostly for beginner level.
Bahasa Indonesia is not as difficult to learn as many other foreign languages; for example, verbs aren’t conjugated as in English and French. Bahasa Indonesia also uses the same alphabet as English, making it much easier to learn when compared to other Asian languages where tonal differences and pictograph written languages are common.
Soon after your arrival in Indonesia, you may want to make it a priority to register for a Bahasa Indonesia course. Often your sponsoring company will pay for at least 40 hours of instruction. There are several excellent schools and community organizations in Jakarta (and other cities) which have comprehensive, structured programs to help you begin learning Indonesian. Theh importance of learning Indonesian properly from the beginning cannot be stressed enough.
An advantage of signing up for a course is that it’s a great place to meet other newcomers and make friends. The people that you will be taking the course with will also be facing many of the settling in and adjustment challenges that you too face as a newcomer. Their advice and sharing newly discovered resources will help to ease your transition. Some people find they are more committee to attend a class rather than arrange for a private tutor.
Several schools offer 2 and 4 week intensive programs, in Bali or Yogyakarta, where you can study for the full day and have some enjoyable cultural experiences as well. These schools are suited for expats who need to learn Bahasa Indonesia quickly, such as diplomats or those with jobs where they have a lot of interaction with Indonesians who don’t speak English (or another foreign language), or any expat who is fully committed to learning the language early in their stay.
Some expats opt for private lessons in their home or office from private tutors because of their time restrictions or wanting to save on travel time. This option tends to be the most expensive, however gives the opportunity for the instruction to be tailored to specifically meet your needs. Even though the tutor may come highly recommended from other expats, that does not ensure the quality of their instruction. Teachers that are employed from quality schools may be the most qualified and have a proven curriculum that they will follow. You may, however, just want to cover specific sections of the course that best meet your specific needs. You may also find it useful to meet with a tutor for a period after you have completed several levels of a formal course. That way they can help you with any special requirements or challenging aspects of the languages that you may be encountering.
Self-Taught Bahasa Indonesia
Some expats opt to learn Bahasa Indonesia on their own. Excellent books to learn Bahasa Indonesia are available in bookstores in the major cities. Once you are in Indonesia, you will have the opportunity to practice your fledgling Indonesian with your household staff, driver, vendors, people you meet in the stores, and social encounters. The diligent will quickly pick up enough Bahasa Indonesia to feel comfortable interacting with Indonesians on a daily basis.
The Bahasa Indonesia that is used on a daily basis by Indonesians is quite different than what you may learn in a formal course, though most Indonesians will certainly understand formal Indonesian grammar as well as the more relaxed versions. Look at your needs and who you will be speaking with to determine the best method for you to learn the language.
Pen Pals and Indonesian Friends
True fluency in a language requires active use of the language. Many expats find it helpful to get a pen pal or have a “language buddy” relationship with an Indonesian where you help each other to learn a desired language by sharing your skills. This can be as simple as setting up a time to meet once or twice a week where you focus on learning language and developing a friendship over coffee or even just emailing each other any questions you have about the language.
Many Indonesians want to learn English, or French, or German so if you want to learn Bahasa Indonesia, offer to “trade” skills by investing time in each other’s language studies. Obviously you can pay a private tutor to do the same thing, but this type of a relationship is based on mutual benefit and doesn’t involve payment which is great if you’re on a limited budget. One time you focus on helping the expat to learn Indonesian, and the next time you meet you focus on helping the Indonesian to learn the foreign language.