The Right Strategy to Learn Indonesian

So you have decided to learn Indonesian, whether because of your partner, because you keep coming back in the country or you decided to settle for a little bit longer in the archipelago for studying or working…

In all the time I spent in the country I was often surprised by the inability of most foreigner residents to speak proper Indonesian . People living for 10 years in the country and still not able to handle a phone call to the telcom operator for an easy problem…

On top of this, reaching a conversational level is quite easy compared to other languages. You are not going to become fluent in a few month or even one year, but you shall be able to sort out every daily situation.

I witnessed many foreigners trying to learn Indonesian and identified 3 reasons while they fail :

  • They don’t work enough. Obviously Indonesian is easier to learn than Chinese but without hours of memorising vocabularies and idiomatic constructions you won’t get good results.
  • They don’t practice. This is the key especially for accent and comprehension.
  • They have a bad learning strategy.

Defining your objective

In order to be effective and rewarding, your learning journey shall focus on different successive goals :

  • Level 1 or beginners (about 1 month) : get your survival kit. You won’t understand much of what people are saying unless they answer in the expected way to the few questions you know. But with a big smile and some patience you are able to ask for directions, prices, order food, have a very basic conversation and even learn a joke or two.
  • Level 2 or intermediate (from 2 to 6 month) : increase your vocabulary. You have identified most of the situations you encounter daily and you learn how to manage them especially unexpected events. You broaden the scope of your vocabulary, learn synonyms and are able to understand more and more idioms. Learning 10-20 words a day should be your target.
  • Level 3 or advanced (at least one year) : aiming for proper Indonesian. You shall now know at least 1,000 words but chances are high that you simply assemble those words to make sentences. You now really need to copycat the way Indonesian speak, understand the structures and be able to replicate them with other vocabulary. Experiment a lot and see if it works. Have your local friends correcting your language as much as possible. Keep learning vocabulary.
  • Level 4 or fluent (at least a few years) : perfect your grammar, learn formal Indonesian and read in Indonesian. Until this point you don’t need to focus about grammar, you will learn it by replicating structures you hear. But to make further progress you gonna need to learn more about affixes. You should now be pretty confident with common Indonesian but struggling with formal/written one. You gonna have to work by reading newspapers, books …

About available books and teachers

Something that I have never understood is that all the books designed to teach Bahasa Indonesia to foreigners I opened are focused on formal Indonesian. They are full of perfectly correct sentences but you will never hear any of them in your daily life.

Indonesian don’t use formal language most of the time. Your priority for at least one year shall be spoken Indonesian, the informal one and the common one, the one you will use everyday and not the one they teach at university. Several times I did see a foreigner arriving in Indonesia, really motivated, buying a self-teaching book and spending time everyday to study. Then he would try 2 or 3 times to use his new sentences and got the same reaction : “no one speak like that, this is way too formal”. Then he looses its motivation and stop learning.

In my humble opinion, unless you are summoned in front a justice court, have to deal with senior government officials or got caught by the police for a serious offence and need to show utmost respect to someone, you will never need formal Indonesian. It doesn’t mean that you can not be polite though.

It also means that you won’t understand much of the newspapers. But I guarantee that you will never hear in the street what you read in the newspapers.

Indonesian society is not as rigid as Japanese for instance and as a foreigner you will make a much better impression by speaking a fluid common Indonesian than a broken formal one.

Regarding teachers, I have little experience because I never used any. But I know a few friends that used one and I still speak way better than them. It’s maybe because they hired them at the beginning of their level 2, a stage where the highest priority is to learn as much vocabulary as possible, something that you can do on your own and rely solely on your personal investment.

Teachers should be much more helpful at level 3 to correct your structures and introduce you to more complex grammar rules. Beware because most of the foreigners never pass the second level and hence many teachers are used to simply teach vocabulary and simple structures. They can be quite bad at explaining more complex structures or rules because they have learned them as a native language.

How did I learn ?

I started out by taking the phrasebook at the end of the Lonely Planet and by writing down in a notebook everything I deemed useful. Then I learned it and used it as much as I could.

Anytime I wanted to say something and I didn’t know how to, I would write down the word or the sentence in my notebook or my phone and ask latter someone to translate it to me. By doing so I made sure I was learning only useful stuffs.

I also noted any word I would hear on a regular basis and ask for translation.

You have to take on any occasion to speak with Indonesian : taxi, ojek or bus drivers are ubiquitous and always glad to talk to you. Force yourself to order in Indonesian at the restaurant, talk with your hairdresser, with satpam (security) officers when waiting for your ride in front of a building, with receptionists when waiting for someone in a mall or a residence. Travel alone. Meeting a local girl/boyfriend is also a must.

I also used the application Babbel that I finished (it contains about 2,500 words). I’ll try to make a dedicated article on it later.

I saw this video by the great Sacha Stevenson not long ago and realised that I followed a similar path years after her. Some of her advices are a bit outdated (I think Boboh magazine is not sold anymore and the song lyrics technique might be a bit out of fashion) but it is still a great video anyway.

To use the classification I laid out above, I would put myself somewhere in early level 4. I deal with any daily life situation with great comfort even though from times to times I still miss some uncommon words. When it comes to reading Kompas or Tempo, I still need to look up for 5 to 30% of the words in the dictionnary depending on the topic of the article. If I’m listening to a political speech, I get the general meaning but not all the details.

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