Bahasa Indonesia – A Key to History

Bahasa Indonesia – A Key to History

Bahasa Indonesia – A Key to History

Over tea with my Brazillian student and her husband the other day, my linguistically inquisitive ears picked up a couple of words that unmistakably sounded Indonesian as she intermittently reverted to mini dialogues in Portuguese with her husband. As far as I knew, none of them speaks Indonesian, so, curious, I asked why they were using Indonesian words. To my surprise, and theirs, the words I heard – “queijo” and “manteiga” (Portuguese for “cheese” and “butter” respectively) have exactly the same pronunciation as ”keju” and “mentega”, two Indonesian words referring to cheese and butter too! So integral are these words to everyday Indonesian life that it never once occurred to me they could have a foreign origin, not least Portuguese as the Dutch had been in Indonesia very much longer. If these were foreign words at all, then it seemed more probable they had Dutch roots, I thought.

Curiosity is the mother of investigation. I lost no time in doing my research. As it turned out, “keju” and “mentega” have no link to Dutch as Dutch words for cheese and butter are “kaas” and “boter”. In fact, no other European languages except Portuguese have these renditions of cheese and butter. It’s also highly unlikely that these are Indonesian words that have entered the Portuguese language as cheese and butter were products introduced to Indonesia by Europeans). My online dig led me to other interesting but little known facts linking the history of Indonesia and Portugal.

Again to my surprise, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to step foot on the Indonesian soil, not the Dutch as common history lessons would teach. The Portuguese presence in Nusantara (the Indonesian Archipelago) was apparently long enough to leave a lasting imprint on the Indonesian language and even culture as evidenced in the popular keroncong music which is sung with the accompaniment of ukulele-like instruments from Portugal. Subsequently I discovered many more Indonesian words with direct attribution to Portuguese. Among these are “jendela” (window), “sepatu” (shoes), “gereja” (church), “natal” (Christmas), “almari” (cupboard), “bendera” (flag). Ordinary linguistic nuggets like these shed much light on a past that linked Portuguese and Indonesian societies. They are almost like a lens that gives us glimpses into lives from a long gone era. 

Mundane words like “jendela” “keju”, “sepatu”, among others, might trigger deeper questions. For example, why Indonesians chose the Portuguese words over Dutch albeit the much longer presence of the latter? Was the Portuguese presence more constructive than the Dutch? Were the Portuguese more willing to immerse and integrate into the Indonesian society? Why did they leave in a haste? One is also inevitably curious to know if there are direct descendants of the Portuguese living in Indonesia today. Similarly, everyday religion-related Indonesian words like “gereja”, “natal”, “paskah” (for Easter) and “minggu” (from the word “domingo” meaning Sunday), which are Portuguese rather than Dutch or English, seem to suggest that there’s more to the Portuguese foray into Indonesia than we know it.

If the adage “language is the key to history” holds any water, then the Indonesian language certainly holds many clues to understanding its past and that of its occupiers. It is a bridge that connects modern Indonesians and non-Indonesians to bygone eras, not just a door to the present.  

Yesaya currently teaches at IndoSlang and English Express

Business Indonesian or General Indonesian?

Business Indonesian or General Indonesian?

Business Indonesian or General Indonesian?

Business Indonesian is a sophisticated form of Bahasa Indonesia used heavily at work in Indonesia or when initiating and negotiating business with Indonesian-speaking partners anywhere in the world. Like Business English, Business Indonesian isn’t separate from the original Indonesian language; In fact it uses the vocabulary and grammar from General Indonesian, but beginner learners of Bahasa Indonesia will find it challenging to absorb the language of Business Indonesian because the latter deals with ways of expression, tones and register which aren’t frequently used in the general Indonesian vernacular. Hence, beginners in Bahasa Indonesia will encounter difficulties in understanding even ordinary Business Indonesian. 

Using an example to illustrate the above, common verb forms such as “baca” (read), “tulis” (write), “kirim” (send), which are acceptable in general communication, may be considered too informal in the world of business. Often a prefix has to be attached to these words to create more formal and complex verb forms in order to achieve a suitable register for business dealings. How language expressions and vocabulary are delivered – the tone – during business also differs from general interaction. 

Furthermore, Business Indonesian is imbued with cross-cultural nuances that beginners would find fiddly. Although beginner learners also learn formal expressions in general Indonesian, these are often used in tandem with persuasion techniques in Business Indonesian, which only more advanced learners of Bahasa Indonesia are familiar with. These techniques involve the use of euphemisms, rhetorical devices, hedging and others.

Foundation is important.

In view of the above, it will be extremely demanding and even unproductive for beginners without prior knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia to dive headlong into Business Indonesian. It is crucial for these learners to first lay the foundation by embarking on a course in elementary General Indonesian. In this way, they will acquire the fundamentals of the language e.g. grammar, syntax, sentence structure, historical and cultural context which will allow them to transit more effectively and smoothly into Business Indonesian. To illustrate with an analogy, beginner learners of Bahasa Indonesia are like driving students who are just starting off. First, they learn the basic driving skills in the safety of the driving circuit, and only later do they move on to the roads (aka the business world) where they encounter demanding drivers and traffic conditions, negotiating these challenges by using more complex techniques.  

Travelling through Many Tongues

Travelling through Many Tongues

Travelling through Many Tongues

My journey in language acquisition started in the heart of Southeast Asia – on Indonesia’s Sumatra Island. Born in a town at the island’s northern tip, I’m a third-generation Southeast Asian whose great grandparents had left southern China at the turn of the last century, braving the rough South China Sea to seek greener pastures in Indonesia. The vast majority of immigrants on northern Sumatra had been Hakkas – an ancient people who had left the Central Plains in northern China more than a millennium ago to escape wars and famine, settling down in the remote hills of southern China. A final wave of migration propelled the Hakkas to diverse corners of the globe including Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Caribbean and African island nations.

Naturally, I grew up speaking Hakka which was the townsfolk’s native tongue. I concurrently acquired Bahasa Indonesia, the language we must learn at school. Throughout their history, the Hakkas have had to, by necessity, adapt by picking up the language of their adopted homeland wherever they settled. It’s thus hardly surprising that most Hakkas speak more than one language. In my family, everyone speaks at least three languages. Mandarin and English were added to my repertoire later in my childhood when my practical parents foresaw the imminent tide of globalisation. Whereas I learnt English through formal lessons (no one in my hometown spoke the language), I acquired Mandarin from my parents (the language couldn’t be taught at school). They soon switched from Hakka to Mandarin when speaking to me and taught me to write Chinese characters.

My language odyssey didn’t end with Mandarin. I discovered Javanese later when I spent several years studying in Jakarta. I picked up this language through my daily interaction with the Javanese employees at my uncle’s business. Cantonese was added later to my linguistic compartment when I moved to Singapore. It wasn’t such a hard language to understand as it bears similarities to Hakka in terms of expressions, pronunciation and tones. I was then already able to speak much Hokkien as it is the lingua franca of the community near my birthplace. My final two attempts are Japanese and Spanish, which I saw as alternatives to English in connecting with important international business communities.

Looking at my language journey, I learnt valuable lessons about language learning. First, it’s clear that it’s always easier to absorb a new language as a child than an adult. I didn’t recall language learning in my childhood to be tedious as acquiring the words and pronunciation was almost unconscious; I didn’t recall having self-consciousness or anxiety about making mistakes as I was just too eager to use my new-found words; And I didn’t recall having problems with remembering words. The psycholinguists are perhaps right to say that a child’s mind is a tabula rasa – a clean slate with no pre-conceived ideas that interrupt language acquisition but with plenty of space for language absorption.

Secondly, a constant exposure to and use of the new language in social settings helps to accelerate its learning. This is illustrated in my learning of Javanese, the language I acquired much later in my childhood compared to the other languages. I didn’t have much struggle as I heard and used it almost daily during my schooling years in Jakarta.
My takeaway from these experiences is that language learning should start early in life if possible, capitalising on our wonderfully spacious and absorptive cognitive mechanism and childlike attitude to learning. A language acquired in childhood can be produced spontaneously without the need to first think in another language. There’s nothing to lose but everything to gain in learning a language as a child.
By contrast, when I learnt Japanese and Spanish later on in my adult life, not only did I find it challenging to remember the words and apply the grammar, I often also had to pause and think in English first before producing a sentence in the former. The process is no longer automatic as during my childhood. It didn’t help that there was little exposure to these languages in my social environment. As a result, the process became more painstaking as I had to make conscious effort in finding opportunities to use it such as through travel or by watching movies and listening to music.

The implication of the above for adult language learning is that constant language exposure and use is key to language acquisition. This will compensate for the childlike absorptive capacity which we lack now. Adult learners need to actively find meaningful and creative ways to reinforce language information. For example, when I teach my Portuguese-speaking Brazilian student English, I take the opportunity to practice my Spanish by using it to explain English words and grammar to her as Spanish and Portuguese are quite mutually intelligible.
Adult language learners shouldn’t feel discouraged because they aren’t learning a new language quickly. They can make up for what they lack with diligence and resourcefulness. Most will gradually become fluent in the new language through constant speaking and listening as in the case of people who work and study in a foreign country. Language acquisition is as much talent as it is hard work. Fluency doesn’t come from flair alone; it needs to be achieved through persistence too.