A Beginner's Guide to Bahasa Indonesia
Selamat Datang panduan pemula untuk Bahasa Indonesia!
I have only been to Indonesia once, but I loved it. I’m supposed to be back there right now, but Mt. Rinjani and her subjects had other ideas… Anyway, my favourite part of the whole trip was speaking the language with the locals. Indonesian (or Bahasa Indonesia, literally the language of Indonesia) is a pretty easy language to learn. Even for people who speak English as their first language!
Here’s my guide to getting the most out of learning Indonesian. I will tack my “If you’re only going to learn ten phrases then learn these ten” phrases at the end of this post.
Indonesians absolutely love foreigners speaking their language.
It should go without saying, but a tiny effort in the language department goes an extraordinarily long way when you’re visiting any new country. This seems to be doubly true in Indonesia. Even by learning just a few little words and phrases, you can guarantee yourself better service, hospitality and respect if you show the locals a little respect by using their own tongue. Even if you only greet people in Bahasa, and say please and thank-you in Bahasa, that elevates you above 90% of the non-effort-making travelers passing through the country. Easy.
You’ll be wrong first time. That’s ok!
Don’t be put off if you learn a word or phrase, only to be corrected by a local. This seems to be more common in Indonesian than any other language I have dabbled with. More often than not, when I learn new a word from a book and try it out on a local, it’s met with a blank stare of incomprehension. Or, more likely, it’s met with a laugh and swift education of the correct phrase to use in that given situation. Much of what I have learned from a phrasebooks and Google seems to be slightly off for every day conversation.
This seems to be par for the course when learning Bahasa Indonesia. In fact, it’s pretty common to learn a word, try it out, be corrected, and then try the correction on someone new, only to discover that you’re still ‘wrong’ in the ears of the person you’re now talking to! And repeat.
Example: ‘Good morning’ in Bahasa is ‘Selamat Pagi’, which officially ends at 11am. After 11am, one should switch to ‘Good day’, or ‘Selamat Siang’. However, half the people you meet will tell you off for using Siang at 11.30, and will insist that one uses Pagi until midday. Even though they aren’t wearing a watch, and they likely don’t know the time anyway!
Part of the reason for the misunderstanding is that Bahasa Indonesia is most Indonesian’s second language. They’re more likely to speak the local language or dialect at home and with friends, and only use Bahasa when they’re doing business or shopping or something else involving strangers. For example, in Bali, most people speak Balinese at home, which is a complicated language for a foreigner to understand. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try!
On that note, learn a couple of words from the local language.
And by that I mean learn a little bit of Bahasa Indonesia plus a little bit of, say, Balinese, or Javanese, or whatever the most prevelent language or dialect is where you’re going. It might seem like extra effort, but even just learning ‘thank-you’ in the local language will earn you bonus brownie points in a restaurant or at your accommodation.
Most pronunciation is phonetic, with a few notable exceptions.
A few rules to go by:
- ‘c’ is always pronounced ‘ch’
- Roll your ‘r’s
- Vowels seem to change pronunciation a lot.
If you get the pronunciation wrong don’t worry, they’ll correct you! It’s the effort that counts.
Indonesians speak really really fast.
If you don’t understand someone, ask them to slow down. All too often if you don’t catch what’s said first time, it will be repeated in English, which is no good for learning! So make sure you jump in quick with ‘tolong bicarra lagi pelan pelan’ (please say again slowly).
Similarly, if what you’ve said isn’t understood first time, try saying it again as fast as you can. Don’t worry if your words mash together and you lose some accuracy in pronunciation — you’re more likely to be understood if you speak fast rather than correctly!
Lastly, call everyone sir or madam at the end of each sentence.
Use Pak (sir) and Ibu (ma’am) to address everyone you meet. You’ll seem courteous, polite, and culturally aware in the company of your hosts. Litter your conversation with lots of sirs and ma’ams for maximum effect!
If you’re only going to learn ten phrases, learn these ten:
All of these translations are spelled phonetically - don’t use this for written comms! This guide is designed to be spoken only…
Please may we speak in English [pak / ibu]?
Minta apakah kita bisa bicarra Bahasa Ingris [pak / ibu]?
Sorry [sir / madam] I don’t speak Indonesian!
Ma’af [pak / ibu], saya tidak bisa bicarra Bahasa Indonesia!
May we have some lunch?
Minta kami makan siang?
It’s good to say this when you enter a restaurant, as it isn’t always obvious as to why you’re there (most places offer other services too, such as laundry or accomdation). Switch out ‘siang’ for ‘pagi’ or ‘melam’ to ask for breakfast or dinner respectively.
Two large Bintang’s, please!
Minta dua Bintang besa
Same again, please!
Minta satu lagi!
Literally ‘please may I have one again’, so if you want to order two of the same, use ‘minta dua lagi’, and so on.
I already have one thanks.
Suda punya terimah kasih.
An easy and polite way to decline an unwanted offer of a bracelet, snorkelling trip, massage, etc.
Please may I have 2 million Rupia using a visa card?
Minta dua juta Rupia munggunakan visa?
This one is very useful at a money exchanger (you can sometimes get a better rate than at an ATM).
See you later!
Sampai jumpa lagi
Literally means ‘see you again’. Never say goodbye to anyone — they’ll find it rude!
May I bargain [sir / ma’am]?
Boleh saya tawar [pak / ibu]?
Great one to use at the start of a haggling session. Be aware that the person you’re dealing with might say ‘tidak!’ (no). Some things (like fuel) are fixed price and can’t be haggled over.
Thank you (in Balinese)
To which they’ll say ‘mo-ali’.
Where are you staying?
Dimana anda tinggal?
Expect to be asked this all the time! Usually, this is just small talk, so it’s ok to say ‘Saya tinggal di sudut’ which means ‘I’m staying around the corner’.
Thus concludes the beginners guide to Bahasa Indonesia!
Hopefully that’s enough to get you started. Of course it’s also important to learn the numbers, and the basics of please, thank you, and the various hellos. But these are the phrases I have used most often and for some reason, phrasebooks for languages all around the world have a general reluctance to teach novice linguists anything of any actual use!
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Loved Guide to Bahasa mate, minimalistic, educational and with the essentials well covered.
Very reassuring and encouraging for those frightened to have a crack at a foreign language (biggest hurdle for most as you know) and the sprinkle of humour throughout keeps it lighthearted and fun. Very “Meadionist”, as in “Sam Meadionsist” indeed, if i may say :D
I like that you identified that Indos love fozzas speaking Bahasa. It Is one of, if not the best thing about their culture and obviously the best environment to attempt a new language in. Definitely the most accommodating culture for language ignorant foreigners I’ve met (Thais are up i there too)
Love that you included tips on how to save money and get rid of hawkers (and buy Bintang!) using Bahasa. Very, very useful.
Sook - sa- moor was a great addition too.
Criticism - could have put “how much is this?” in there, more pictures and the contrast in font could have been greater between the two languages for better visual differentiation. But hey! Im just being extremely picky cause i loved the whole thing and Ive been praising you too much! haha
Great job mate! you’ve inspired me yet again!