Indonesians adopting English: but in what way?

Jul 28th, 2010, in Society, by

As recently posted in the New York Times:

Indonesia’s linguistic legacy is increasingly under threat as growing numbers of wealthy and upper-middle-class families shun public schools where Indonesian remains the main language but English is often taught poorly. They are turning, instead, to private schools that focus on English and devote little time, if any, to Indonesian.

As English Spreads, Indonesians Fear for Their Language, by Norimitsu Onishi

I guess it is a bit ironic that, on a post about Indonesians’ new fetish for the English language, I am writing this in English myself. While, in this case, it’s because this article gets syndicated in an English-speaking blog, it also happens to be true that I am more fluent in English than Indonesian. Though for a different reason than stated in the linked article…

Live in Indonesia for long enough, and you’d likely have experienced the situation described in the article. By its omissions, however, it might portray the wrong picture to those unfamiliar with Indonesian history.

The country has been independent for slightly less than 65 years — if you live in a developed country and was born when we declared independence, you’d only have reached retirement age! As the article described, Indonesia was adopted as the national language — it did not say when, but this was in 1928; again, within the lifetime of long-lived octogenarians.

Most Indonesians come from families that, within one or two generations, do not speak Indonesian as their mother tongue (p.s. NYT, it’s “Bahasa Indonesia” or “Indonesian”, never “Bahasa” — don’t perpetuate this error made mostly by English speakers). Unless you speak Malay at home (about 8% of the population), your mother tongue would be as different from Indonesian as, say, Dutch is to German. And that’s the best-case scenario. If you (or your parents) come from a Chinese, Papuan, etc. language then the languages are not even in the same linguistic family.

What I’m getting at is that even “native” Indonesian speakers speak a pidgin form of the language. We spend years getting the proper use of affixes (a delightful feature of the language) drilled into our heads. I challenge you to observe, in spoken conversations, how often this is actually used. Even in written communication: our broadsheets often drop in English words unnecessarily, or use Indonesian words without proper conjugations and declensions.

The article does not, interestingly, explicitly express concern that the new English-speaking generation it describes might end up speaking English as badly as the previous generation speaks (or butchers) Indonesian itself. The upper-middle class that can afford proper international schools might not have this problem, but a child growing up in a family where the parents speak broken English, and the nanny speaks a smattering of English words? Heaven forbid. Given that it’s now fashionable for children to learn Mandarin as well, one could imagine some children growing up speaking three languages equally badly.

A personal anecdote: in the university town of Bloomington, Indiana in the United States, one would from time to time bump into a group of Indonesians — normally in Chinese restaurants. They’re a very close-knit group, speak Indonesians among themselves (despite most of them being of Chinese descent — forced assimilation sometimes does work), and I’d often amuse myself by doing a running translation to English for the benefits of close friends (given the volume of the conversation, one could do this easily while sitting at a nearby table). The grammar is atrocious — and this, sadly, tends to be replicated when they speak English. Indonesian is easy to learn but hard to master — the declension of nouns with affixes is wondrously complex — and since the language lacks tenses, necessitating using adverbial phrases, Indonesians can be infuriatingly vague sometimes on the issue of time.

And after more of a decade in English-speaking countries, one tends to find it much easier to use English whenever one has this need for precision — after all, it’s not a very satisfactory conversation if one speaks really formal Indonesian and gets an unclear, imprecise reply back

27 Comments on “Indonesians adopting English: but in what way?”

  1. David says:

    Great stuff Michel,

    The article does not, interestingly, explicitly express concern that the new English-speaking generation it describes might end up speaking English as badly as the previous generation speaks (or butchers) Indonesian itself. The upper-middle class that can afford proper international schools might not have this problem, but a child growing up in a family where the parents speak broken English, and the nanny speaks a smattering of English words? Heaven forbid. Given that it’s now fashionable for children to learn Mandarin as well, one could imagine some children growing up speaking three languages equally badly.

    My impression is that a lot of these middle class people actually don’t care whether their kids are getting proper English or not, just that it’s English, of whatever kind. I think it’s got something to do with social snobbery, they can show/say to people that their kid goes to an English language school, and that’s the main point of it.

    There is a pseudo international school near where I used to live in west Surabaya and its motto is

    Let a hand to a better world

    It’s been like that for years and nobody seems to care, it’s on a big sign at the front. The school is run by expatriate Indians by the way. Just an anecdote…

  2. timdog says:

    Thanks Michael, much appreciated.
    And interesting point there too Mr David…
    And I enjoyed the fact that the original article used the ubiquitous “who like many Indonesians uses only one name”. Can’t have a piece about Indonesia in the international press without it…

    However, there’s something which I feel is important to add to the debate. This issue – of the rise of a [possibly imperfect] English as the language of choice, the Cinta Lauraisation of the Middle Class youth – is in fact a storm in a metropolitan teacup…
    Now by that I don’t mean that it’s not important; in fact it may mean it has a greater significance missed in both the original article and in Michael’s post, and here’s why:

    Obviously this businesses of the rise of English applies only to a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of Indonesians – the middle classes, and the middle classes in a handful of major cities at that.
    In the vast, vast majority of the country it is still the rise of Indonesian that is the key issue; English hasn’t even appeared on the radar. Most Indonesians don’t live in Jakarta, Bandung or Surabaya, and anyway, you can find plenty of people in Surabaya whose Indonesian is pretty shaky and who certainly don’t have any English beyond “hello misterrrrrr”. Two hours out of the city there are plenty of people who speak no Indonesian at all.
    I recently spent a day with an awesome family in Alor, NTT. The husband’s Indonesian was totally at first language level; the wife spoke significantly better Indonesian than me, but you could still see that it wasn’t a language she was totally at home with. Their first language was Abui. But their kids – three, all under ten – they told me, had a real reluctance to speak Abui. They understood it, but would almost always reply in Indonesian (these people didn’t even have a TV – it was all through school). The kids couldn’t talk to their grandmother (who spoke no Indonesian at all).
    That kind of thing is happening all over the country, and in the vast, vast majority of cases the usurping language is Indonesian, not English.

    This has a real significance with regards the article and the post: if the metropolitan middle classes are in danger of losing their Indonesian, while the langauge continues to entrench across the rest of Indonesian society, surely that can only exacerbate the existing massive social divide. If the people who hold sway in business, media and entertainment (and potentially also politics) are really moving into speaking an imperfect sort of English as their first language while the remaining 99% of the country are still moving into Indonesian… well, just think – you’ve got those Alorese kids who can’t talk to their own grandmother, but who also can’t talk to the mallrats of Jakarta and Surabaya.

    Any thoughts on the implications of that?

  3. deta says:

    Hmm… why Cinta Laura is the first name that came into my mind when I read this post? What evil has she done? 😉

    I remember that about one decade ago there was a “battle of the languages” between bahasa daerah (regional language) and bahasa Indonesia. There was a concern that bahasa daerah would disappear as people were more and more reluctant to use them, and people who could not speak proper bahasa daerah were considered to be more modern. But it was saved by the awareness of some people who considered language as not only a tool to communicate but it is a symbol of regional pride and identity.

    Now I can see the same battle occurs between Bahasa Indonesia and English. People – especially teenagers – who cannot speak Bahasa Indonesia properly but mix it with (no less bad) English are considered to be more cool. 🙂 Considering that even the so-called International Standard Schools (SBI) still have poor quality of teachers in terms of their English, I think it is important for Indonesian children to be able to speak Bahasa Indonesia properly before taking a further step to English or they will end up speaking an alien language to any culture.

  4. vojo says:

    This is a very interesting subject to me. Indonesian is easy, as you say, to learn at a certain level. Beyond that, either ascending formally into the realms of prefixes, suffixes and declension, or descending into the depths of the most vulgar slang, gets exceedingly difficult to master or even understand.

    Indonesian can be very exclusive. I, an English speaking “bule”, married into a Central Javanese Chinese family. There is one other “foreigner” who married into the family, a Chinese Indonesian from Padang. Often when the rest of them are bantering on about something that I cannot understand, I ask him if he understands, and he says, “not really”. When they turn and speak to him, if they do, all of a sudden it’s understandable (to me), and obviously to him.

    “Bules” too massacre the Indonesian language. But we take comfort from the fact that most Indonesians also speak it as a foreign language. Our attempt at your language is just another version of the language. Have you ever heard a Scot speak Indonesian? It is beautiful, almost lyrical. That should be the adopted accent of the language, although it may never catch on.

  5. Michel S. says:

    Hi David,

    That’s my personal experience as well — most of these “English-speakers” try to have their cake and eat it too, ending up with less than adequate proficiency in both languages. Or perhaps, in Indonesian, Mengharap burung terbang tinggi, punai di tangan dilepaskan?

    My equivalent to your example is this TOEFL/IELT prep center in Kelapa Gading, a middle-class part of Jakarta, that stated brazenly “IELTS 6.0 Guaranted” (sic).

    I guess it’s a good thing these tests are mainly multiple-choice, then — and probably why Kaplan adopted a written component for their GRE test. Too many foreigners gaming the test and appearing more fluent than they actually are!

    The only way I see out is to see the Indonesian language having a higher-profile literary presence. Unfortunately, high-end bookshops tend to feature mostly English-language books (and unless I’m mistaken, the supply of translated books have fallen sharply since the ’90s — the middle-class increasingly read in the original, which is both good and bad — if they read at all). Public libraries are almost non-existent…

  6. Michel S. says:

    That’s an interesting experience. My father’s family are Central Javanese Chinese, like your wife’s, but I’ve not been there sufficiently often to feel excluded. It is the case that Javanese speakers would drop into Javanese when they meet each other, which I actually applaud — preserving one’s own cultural legacy is sensible, even admirable. Though I understand your situation too — I recall having a conversation with some friends from Medan, and as more of them join in, the language suddenly switched to Hokkien, and nobody remembered that I was there anymore.

    “Bules” massacre the language, yes, and that’s understandable (most of us are actually pleasantly surprised when y’all (English really needs to standardize on a distinctive second person plural pronoun!) try). The only major irritant for me as that native English speakers are really bad at pronouncing the vowels of most other languages in the world — I blame the Great Vowel Shift for that. Then again, Indonesians reciprocate — a lot of us are quite bad at pronouncing certain sounds common in English and other European languages too.

    Never heard a Scot speaking Indonesian before — are you Scottish? In that case I should experience this the next time I’m in town. From what I hear, you guys would have less trouble learning Arabic, though. I could never pronounce that gurgling “kh” sound.

  7. Michel S. says:

    She’s done nothing evil, of course. The Indonesian fetish for Eurasians is rather embarrassing, but thankfully not as bad as, say, the Japanese male’s fetish for blond women. Still, I’ve never really got into the habit of watching local TV soaps so I could care less where they source their acting talents from. On the other hand, having a Miss Indonesia that does not speak Indonesian — regardless of whether one agrees in principle to beauty contests or not (I don’t, especially as they attract girls of ever younger ages — in the States they have dolled-up 5-year-old Barbies) — shows a tragic insecurity and lack of national pride (here I am, wary on the whole about nationalism, arguing for a certain dose of it!).

    Completely agree on the need for better standards. And it would do foreign students of international schools a lot of good too, to be required to take Indonesian language classes. The problem with the Indonesian education system is two-fold — lack of qualified teachers, as you said (and parents who know no better). I’m reminded of the Latin proverb, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? — who will guard the guards themselves? Starting from the ’50s, when Dutch citizens (including a lot of Eurasians — the last bout of racism against them) were expelled, unqualified people end up taking over, and have been preventing qualified talents from supplanting them ever since. If you’re smarter than your superior, in Indonesia it’s best to hide the fact.

    The second reason is how education is quite often seen as a business opportunity. How many for-profit schools and universities are there now? One can’t even listen to the radio for an hour without getting bombarded with their advertising. In the developed world, the advertising is much less common, and it is notable how only the less reputable institutions engage in the practice (and they don’t put up silly skits like we do). Some of these schools make the University of Phoenix look reputable…

  8. Michel S. says:

    Hi Tim,

    It’s Michel — not Michael (don’t worry about it, though, outside Europe most people either mispronounce or misspell my name!)

    I agree with you that it’s mostly a problem in the metropole (i.e. Jakarta). Being from there myself, it’s easy to lapse into thinking that what applies there applies in the rest of the country — especially if one’s a foreigner; kudos to you as one yourself for picking up on this. The times I travel outside Jakarta and its surrounding area, I always notice how .. different .. the rest of the country feels: people are invariably more polite and less self-centered, the place is cleaner, traffic is saner, etc. — basically, the equivalent of leaving New York for the American Midwest.

    And when it comes to language, Jakarta is I suppose in a unique situation. It has no officially recognized dialect of its own (there’s Betawi but it’s not considered a proper language, and besides, the recent migrants don’t speak it), and being a center for business it is more heavily exposed to the languages of international commerce as well, whether English, Japanese or, especially nowadays, Mandarin. My worry is that what is happening in Jakarta is not unique, it’s merely being a trend-setter. After children drop their regional mother tongues for Indonesian, would they not be more attuned to the cultural trends of the capital, and would it not be even easier to drop their shallow-rooted attachment in Indonesian to end up speaking English? After all, surely part of the reason they prefer Indonesian to the local language is for economic reason…

    On the other hand, if it is really two separate trends, there are serious implications. Not as bad as to cause separatism — we’re only talking about a small urban elite against the rest of the country, after all — but an increasing distrust of Jakarta might result. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, in moderation — countries that keep their political and economic capitals in the same place tend to put the interests of the economic elite ahead of the rest of the country. Look at London, for example, and the demise of the British industry vis-a-vis its European counterpart. The French are the exception that prove the rule — probably because a lot of their politicians still keep regional links — serving as mayors of regional cities simultaneously as holding national office (one wonders how well their local constituents are served by this arrangement, but perhaps the entrenched regional link is on the whole beneficial). If the national political shake-up does not happen, though, it just means we’re following our well-trodden path — of a feudal elite ruling the rest of the populace, though entry to this elite grouping is no longer strictly by birth.

    Of interest would be whether the trend towards political and economic decentralization in recent years would result in the creation of a local “Inglis” speaking elite (trying to coin a term equivalent to Japrish here) or to result in strengthened use of Indonesian and regional languages.

  9. realest says:

    I think there was an article in the local media pertaining this issue earlier this year but nevertheless a great topic.
    If u wanna be rich in indonesia, there are 3 popular ways – a) work in a bank/big corporations (preferably higher-paying foreign ones), c) having the capital to open your own establishments(or your parents’ business protege), d) get into a job with the highest demand in the world … doctors. a) and b) has an affinity for overseas graduates(as seen in job ads) which requires a local graduate to have a business proficiency in english to be considered on par, something even UI/ITB/UGM graduates have difficulty mastering given their preference to use Bahasa on a daily basis. i’ll group d) together with c) due to the expensive medical school tuition. For many, a) and b) becomes the most realistic and viable option, considering c) and d) actually places you in the mid-upper caste already.

    “Most Indonesians come from families that, within one or two generations, do not speak Indonesian as their mother tongue”
    I’m sure the older indo-chinese generations feel the same disappointment too when 80% of their offsprings can’t speak mandarin or, more gravely, doesn’t see the need to even learn them when given the opportunity :DD

    “The grammar is atrocious — and this, sadly, tends to be replicated when they speak English.”
    I’ve this tingling feeling that they spend their teens in singapore(or maybe malaysia) 😀

  10. vojo says:

    No, I’m not Scottish, but a good friend of mine who arrived in Jakarta when he was around 50 and has been there for about 10 years is. Unlike many other bules, he has really tried to learn the language and speak it as often as possible. The result is a fluently spoken Indonesian with a Scottish sound-brilliant!

    I know some foreigners who have been in Jakarta for up to 20 years but yet cannot speak or understand Indonesian. Some blame age, or hearing problems, but really it’s just laziness. Just as migrants to English speaking countries should learn English, foreigners who make Indonesia their home should learn Indonesian, at least to a certain survival level.

  11. Michel S. says:

    I hear you. I now live in Germany, and apparently there are migrant workers who have been here for over 20 years and still cannot speak German.

    I can see how the incentive is substantially lesser for an expat in Indonesia to learn the language, though. Most Western expats don’t stay long enough, living condition in their home countries tends to be higher, and even if they want to stay here (as someone I know does, who had to leave the country as a child) it’s really hard unless you’re married to one.

    But still, yes, after 20 years one does not really have an excuse anymore.

  12. Michel S. says:

    The level of service in foreign-owned banks in Jakarta leaves a lot to be desired, though. I wonder if there is a disconnect between the English-speaking expats in management and the local employees, who are thus left unsupervised, or if it’s the overall lower level of competence, or, worryingly, that foreign banks know that they are perceived to be a safer harbour for money, and thus do not need to actively serve their customers. Visa applications in Indonesia tends to be much more bureaucratic a process than the same process, for the same nationality, done overseas (as I experienced applying for a visa in Indonesia, cf. applying for visas to the same countries from Europe or the US), and tend to require an official letter from the bank vouching for the customer’s accounts. It beggars belief how this simple letter, that you would think exists in template form on a computer somewhere, gets butchered on a regular basis.

    Regarding (d) — reminds me of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and his “doctor, engineer, lawyer” list of acceptable professions. At least in Indonesia lawyers are not as highly-regarded as in the States :p. I do wish engineers are better-appreciated there though, but this ties in to point (c) — local businesses tend to promote within the owners’ families, and degree-toting outsiders are not as appreciated as they should be.

    I’d hesitate to call it a “caste” system though. Class-based stratification certainly exist, but it’s possible to move between them, though I bet social mobility is lower here than in the States (where it’s already quite bad, despite the myth of the American Dream — even class-ridden Britain does better).

    As for Mandarin, then yes, I can attest to that — elder relations tend to express that sense of disappointment rather openly :). I don’t think Gen-Xers and below see Mandarin as something that does not need to be learned, though — not the business-oriented folks, anyway. Being a more technical person myself, I’d say that yes, in my case, there is no urgent need to learn it. Why are we focusing only on Mandarin, though? Most Chinese-Indonesian families probably speak, or used to speak, another Chinese language (I’d hesitate to call them mere dialects) than Mandarin — whether Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, or others.

    As for grammar –no, I’m embarrassed to say that Indonesian-influenced English has worse grammar than even the worst Singlish can inflict. It’s the dropping of definite articles, the casual butchering of tenses, etc. — whereas Singlish is more like Ebonics (I wonder how many people will complain to me for that comparison!) in that it has its own, rather complex, rules, even if those are not standard English. And the most common butchering, of adding interjections like “lah” at the end, are not that grammatically harmful — though I remember a funny incident of a Malaysian friend trying to sound like an Indonesian speaking English by substituting “dong” for “lah” … it obviously does not work.

  13. rustyprince says:

    Hello, I’m just curious but how well does foreign language fiction translate into Bahasa Indonesia. Most English speaking novel afficionados would include foreign translations among their favourites, thus asserting that the translations lose nothing of their verve, poignancy as a result. Indeed Christopher Hitchens has declared that Proust’s ‘Remembrance of things past’ translates better into English. I don’t know about that but I love Don Quixote, Llosa and his fellow Latin American contemporary Marquez and it must be a joy to enjoy these masters in the original tongue. But there also must be great art a la ‘Trainspotting’ that is just beyond distillation and reading such a product is probably something akin to banging a blow-up doll. So are Indonesian translations worthwhile?

  14. ET says:

    What follows is the transposition of a comment I recently posted under the thread ‘Bahasa Indonesia’ but which I believe could also be applicable to this discussion.

    unless indonesia experienced an economic boom like china and establish itself as a world superpower in the next 1-2 decades(or u wished to live/work here), i dont see bi(malay) as one of the important languages u need to master;

    Indeed. Even if they manage to develop into a major economic power the language itself will never be able to impose itself on a world scale because it is too primitive, even childish, and lacks structure and vocabulary to convey complex and precise meanings. Everyone who has learned BI knows that it is very easy to learn and use on a day-to-day basis but becomes a pain in the ass once an intellectual discourse is to be made. I have heard that because of nationalistic pride Malaysia has tried to replace English with Malay in their educational curriculum but had to back down due to practical objections.

    It is not my intention to condescend on the language. I have learned to read, write and speak Bahasa Indonesia out of sheer interest since a long time and I use it 99% of my time when I’m in Indonesia. However as a means of communication on a level beyond the daily necessities I’m still having difficulties with it, not because of a lack of vocabulary or grammatical proficiency on my behalf, but because my linguistic wiring is different. I cannot get rid of the impression that the purpose of many of its language rules are geared to observe existing social stratification – although the regional languages like e.g. Javanese or Balinese suffer from this peculiarity to a much larger extent – rather than to serve the correct transmission of content and ideas.

    Therefore I believe the reason for the shift among the higher educated classes to English – besides the obvious element of snobbery – is also a practical one in order to be able to compete in the present in an increasingly scientific environment, something the Indonesian nationalists of the 1920ies weren’t able to foresee when they tried to forge a national identity.

  15. Michel S. says:

    The lack of vocabulary could be fixed — though even in more established languages such as French, it is often hard to replace the unofficial loanwords that are already in use. The lack of structure — well, we somewhat. Formal Indonesian (and Malay), while lacking in conjugation (and thus tenses cannot be easily expressed without resorting to adverbial phrases), is rich in declension. The problem is that in “bahasa gaul” or “prokem” or even the “formal” Indonesian that is spoken daily, declensions are rarely used properly! It’s the Pareto law again, the 80-20 rule — Indonesian has a low barrier of entry to learn (unless you’re an English-speaker who has problem with the vowel sounds, but it’s still way easier there than, say, Sundanese). It has a high barrier of entry to master, if by mastering we set the criteria of “being able to easily express the equivalent of a complex [English/Russian/French/…] sentence”.

    I often notice this myself when I try translating things to Indonesian — and this is probably why quite a few of us find it more natural to write in English: if you are sufficiently fluent in English, certain things are easier to express in that language, simply because nobody is used to using Indonesian to express that amount of details.

    Malaysia is much smaller than Indonesia — and talk to knowledgeable Indonesians and we tend to find their cultural arrogance rather off-putting — of claiming the best bits of “archipelago” culture as “Malay” (including the Ambonese song “Rasa Sayange”) but then looking down on recent migrants. Not even consistent in being wrong! And it’s a bit counterproductive for them to dump their colonial heritage of English — in Indonesia the same thing happens, with the rapid rejection of the Dutch language, but as Dutch is not as widely used, the effect is probably less harmful. Though as timdog posted in the main site recently, this is a barrier for not only foreigners, but Indonesians, to understand the country’s history — we can no longer read a substantial part of the archives! But going back to Malaysia, it makes less sense to cut themselves from English, which is already quite widely spoken — on the other hand, they have a more severe problem in promoting the use of Malay than we do in Indonesia. The different races there tend to intercommunicate in… Malaysian English.

    Small countries in Europe do just fine with speaking their own language — Switzerland even has four official ones. That’s not to say that one should not be proficient in English, or whatever other language is necessary in one’s field of work (e.g. for an Indonesian anthropologist, probably also Dutch and whatever local language one studies), but the European example shows that mastery of one does not need to be at the expense of another.

  16. Michel S. says:

    Hi Rusty,

    I agree that translations are a bit hit and miss — in some cases they work, in some they don’t. Even within European languages, I can give you a counter-example to Hitchens’ claim about Proust — another French novel, Nerval’s Sylvie, is claimed by Umberto Eco to be untranslatable to English because it employs certain tenses that are vague in French (and other Romance languages), but translating to English would lose this vagueness (unless recreated by other means). A translator of Orhan Pamuk found a similar problem: due to Turkish’ SOV sentence structure, often a twist that’s supposed to be revealed at the end of the sentence comes too early in English.

    With Indonesian — I’ve not read any significant literary work translated into Indonesian (I tend to read them in English), so I cannot say for sure. In the reverse direction, though, I rather prefer Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s work in the original Indonesian than in English (which was how I read him at first, in Singapore, because his books were still banned in Indonesia at the time).

  17. Rob says:

    I find that only a very small number of people I encounter in Indonesia speak even passable English, so I’m not expecting it to boom as a language any time soon. Everyone I know over there speaks perfectly good Indonesian as well as their regional language, but then I’ve not ventured much into the villages for any length of time. I’d assume it’s largely older generations whose Indonesian is a bit shaky, for their kids have grown up with it on tv.

    I’ve often thought Indonesian can be a bit vague in certain circumstances, but have also wondered if it’s due to my or the speaker’s limited vocabulary. I’m glad I’m not the only one to think that!

    Does anyone butcher the language (or any language) as much as teenage girls?!

  18. gabby says:

    little correction: Dutch is the national language of Netherland. As the Germans speak Deutsch, not Dutch.

  19. Michel S. says:

    In this case I do actually mean Dutch. I’m saying Indonesian is as similar to Malay as Dutch is to German. Though it’s interesting that the word “Dutch” and “Deutsch” are actually related — Dutch is quite similar to Plattdeutsch (Low German) spoken in the northern parts of Germany.

  20. Ross says:

    Interesting series of comments. I watch sopas/sinatrons a lot, out of my left eye when I’m typing bloggery, as somebody else under my roof is fascinated by them.
    And very often I have to ask why the actors break into English. There are rarely any bule characters in the story, so I have to assume they think it is ‘cool,’ but to me it makes them sound like posers.
    Having said that, one of my earliest homes here comprised an ethnic Chinese widow and her teenage daughter, plus numerous servants.
    The mum and gal would often use English to prevent servants learning of matters deemed unfit for servile ears.

  21. Benny says:

    The quality of translation works do correspond to the quality of the translators. And the quality of translators to/from Indonesian (or to any language) depend on a lot of factors. All I’m saying is that the translation “tradition” here is still young and untested. We need more readers, more quality translations, and more critics. Good translation editors are in great demand too! Don’t blame it all to the translators if a translation is bad, sometime we have to ask why the publishers dare to publish those unreadable stack o’ paper.

    Nuff ranting…

  22. Apin says:

    Hi ,

    I agree with your opinion about bahasa Indonesia was not spoken properly by the new generations Indonesian and mixed them with poor English , because of the limitions of Indonesian Language themselves . As you know a lot of English words can not be translated into Indonesian , and the meaning could become different.

    If you see Indonesian language adapted a lot of foreign words not only English alone but also ,Ducth, Portuegesse ,Spanish , Arabic even Hindi words and so on. Indonesian not even aware they spoke a lot of words that was not originaly Indonesian.

    I understand your point of view about the way people speak and continue mixed them up badly ,which sometimes sound so bad and hard to accept.

    The way I look at it may that are sound of progress as young Nation who become part of the International Community.

  23. BK says:

    A very well-written article and highly entertaining. The comments were quite good as well. Wow, so many issues have been addressed that it’s hard to say much more, but I’ll give you my take as a foreign English teacher.

    I’m in South Sumatra, which wasn’t mentioned, but my oh my are the clashes of regional dialects, slang, bad Indonesian and atrocious English at work here. At my school—an Indonesian private school—they are mostly from the same area. Actually, in my classes they all grew up here even if they were born somewhere else like say Jakarta or Medan.

    Now, I don’t profess to be a great scholar of the Indonesian language, but if I pick up a newspaper, speak with the right person (i.e. first language Indonesian or a proper speaker) or write, I can get on just fine. It just blows my mind when I can’t understand hardly anything these kids say and the same goes for the majority of the teachers. They speak and I’m immediately lost unless I just happen to know what’s going on. They speak every language and dialect other than Indonesian. Oh, and don’t get me started with the slang. Not that slang is a bad thing—I use it when I speak to native English speakers—but when this language is normal, it makes learning the proper language exceedingly difficult. This is why I’ve abandoned my quest to learn proper Indonesian in favor of slang and the local dialect. I’m not trying to write a book or translate for the UN. I want to speak, understand and be understood. If that’s the only way to do it, then so be it.

    So how does English factor in to all this? A good chunk of these kids can speak passable English—especially the older ones. They are taught with a mixture of languages and all of the books save for their Indonesian and Mandarin courses are in English. However, it doesn’t save them from speaking a hodge-podge mixture of Indonesian, local dialects, slang and poor English all in the same, nearly incoherent sentence. This isn’t all of them, but it isn’t one or two either.

    And it isn’t just the students doing it either. My friends, nearly all of which are teachers, do it as well. My girlfriend is terrible for it—especially in an SMS. Browse your Indonesian friends’ Facebook statuses one day for a good laugh. As you go from island to island, I’m sure there are the same problems and complexities to be found. I don’t know a good solution or if one even exists, but it always makes for a lively discussion as we can see from this article.

  24. semendo says:

    indonesia is developing country so, it’s still learning to be globally. So that is’n a mistake for someone that still learning.

  25. Arie Brand says:

    This is an endlessly fascinating topic.

    What I find time and again is that monolingual people (especially native English speakers) and ‘polyglots’ who remain at home habitually underestimate the difficulty of mastering a foreign language perfectly. Of course, we have the well-known examples of Arthur Koestler (who even shifted twice: from Hungarian to German and from there to English), Joseph Conrad and Nabokov, and probably quite a few lesser literary lights, but I wonder what their spoken language was like. Of Conrad we know at any case that he retained to the end of his life a clear Polish accent. I don’t know whether he was subject to the linguistic infirmity of many fluent non-native speakers who might commit errors in their spoken language, immediately – but too late – understood as such, that they would never make in writing. And bookish people, who first encountered English in its written form, are also likely to retain a bookish element in their spoken language.

    I have spoken English on a daily basis for the last fifty years but it would be a very undiscerning native speaker who would mistake me for another one – and this is not just a matter of pronunciation. Yet, of all national languages Dutch is supposedly closest to English (Frisian is closer but that is not a national language) so the job should be even harder for people who have to shift from a more distant language. My wife, who has Visayan as her native language, manages tolerably well in English but will always struggle with declensions and gender (the word for s/he in Visayan is “siya” , a word misleadingly close to “she”, so male persons often experience half way a sudden transformation of gender in her conversation – a bit of a professional hazard this because she is a nurse). The problems in the Philippines are quite similar to those in Indonesia except that English is more widely used there, especially in academe and the press. One can say that English manages to bridge regional differences (many educated speakers of Visayan still resent that Tagalog became the national language) but exacerbates social ones.

    In the past I have met a few older Indonesian nationals who spoke fluent Dutch but they were all of Chinese descent. I remember hearing both President Sukarno and General Nasution, speaking Dutch in scenes presented on Dutch television and they spoke it well but I don’t know whether they would have been able to keep that up in a longer conversation. Sjahrir wrote the language perfectly in letters addressed to his Dutch girlfriend (later bundled as “Indonesische Overpeinzingen”). I do indeed believe that the minuscule number of the population that learned Dutch before the war got a firmer grounding in the language than is the case now with English. Though the Dutch made no real effort to spread their language (the governmental “Balai Pustaka” was meant to promote literacy in Indonesian rather than Dutch) yet they insisted that those who gained access to higher education should have a good command of the language. This was partly because education in a basically bourgeois society such as the Netherlands, and by extension in colonial Indonesia, was a more important status symbol there than it ever was in Britain (this is one reason why the Brits were more lavish in putting up institutions of higher learning in British India than the Dutch were in Indonesia – an educated Indian there remained an Indian, an educated Indonesian was almost Dutch).

    A further note on language policy in the Netherlands Indies: I remember having seen somewhere a circular memo dating from around 1907 and coming from the then Governor General (who didn’t have much Indonesian himself) in which the officials in the European civil service were enjoined to speak Dutch to Indonesians who had learned the language, especially the native chiefs. His Excellency had learned that those civil servants were reluctant to do so.

    According to the Resident (Bupati) of Rembang , G.L.Gonggriip, who wrote from 1911 to 1914 a series of amusing letters to the “Bataviaasch Handelsblad” (later published in book form as the “Brieven van Opheffer” – “Letters from Uplifter”) and who reacted somewhere to a similar notion this was nonsense: “ … those who do not approve of natives speaking Dutch belong themselves to the lower ranks of society. Indos who hardly know Dutch themselves prefer to be addressed in Malay or Javanese. Yes, in Java they even get angry when they are addressed in Malay and not in Javanese. The native chiefs themselves find it more polite to use Javanese. But it is nonsense to reproach the B.B. (Field Civil Service) officials for this.

    Just go to Raden Mas Soenario, sub-collector and member of the municipal council: he knows Dutch and ask him why he speaks Javanese to B.B.officials … He just refuses to do so “because nobody can force him to be impolite”. I don’t know why speaking Dutch is regarded as being impolite. I have often asked him. His answer was always “ because we don’t know the language perfectly we fear to be impolite because we could, involuntarily, make an error.”

    I wonder whether this consideration applies today to speaking English.

  26. empressnasigoreng says:

    Indonesian is easy to learn but hard to master

    This is so true! It also seems to me that spoken Indonesian has changed almost beyond recognition even since the end of the Suharto regime.

    I also agree that there is a lot of ‘infusion’ into the language from other languages, ie, not just English but from regional languages. I remember from when I was working in an Indonesian office in Jakarta that there was a lot of humourous exchange of slang terms from different regional languages (and it wasn’t just the speakers of the particular language who would use these terms). You really had to be on the ball to keep up with it all. It was very entertaining though and I think contributed to the richness of what is actually a fairly basic language (compared to something like Arabic where you can convey a whole host of ideas in just a single phrase).

    I also think it is pretty consistent with the Indonesian character which, to my mind, is pretty jokey and fun-loving and not afraid to pick and choose the best bits from a variety of cultural influences. I certainly don’t think this kind of ‘word play’ is an indication of a language being spoken ‘badly’ but of a language vibrancy which probably comes with the territory of it being a fairly ‘young’ language being spoken by a relatively ‘young’ population (compared to most Western countries).

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