Indonesian is Hard to Learn

Wandering around on the internet instead of lesson planning, I came across a blog entry arguing that Indonesian is an extremely hard language to learn.

I frequently hear that Indonesian is easy to learn, and I agree–somewhat. There are no tenses, and though you still mess around with verbs, it’s not to the same annoying extent that you would in, say, French. However, I’ve never held that Indonesian is easy. At this point, I can communicate fine, but I know there’s still much more to learn if I want to speak well, and right now it seems incredibly daunting.

My argument about Indonesian ends up being this: informal Indonesian isn’t so hard to learn; formal Indonesian is. This can be seen any time I hang out with my language-teacher-turned-friend. She’s one of the few people who will let me tell long stories in Indonesian without getting bored or confused. These storytelling sessions, though, always turn into grammar-correcting sessions, as she interrupts to fix a sentence that’s not quite right. I appreciate this, but it just goes to show that Indonesian isn’t quite as easy as they say.

The author of the blog post brought up another good point that I hadn’t really thought about but that I definitely feel all the time: Indonesian is context-heavy. As the blog post’s author states, you can understand all the words in a conversation and still not know what it’s about. This rings so true for me. Time and again, one of my friends will say something and I’ll just end up blinking at him or her, running the sentence through my head and trying to figure out why I still don’t understand. Maksudnya has become my most useful phrase.

All of this sounds a little strange in the context of English–couldn’t people just be more precise with their words?–so let me give you an example.

A few months ago, I was sitting at the edge of the student union’s courtyard, trying to use the word “resentment” in a sentence. The problem is, there is no word for resentment in Indonesian. I looked it up. An entry for it exists in my English-Indonesian dictionary, but all the options were variations on the word “anger”.

As so often happens, I ended up talking about the word for five minutes, trying to describe its temporal aspects. My friend, I think, was just confused. At one point, I showed him the Indonesian options in the dictionary and had him explain them to me. That didn’t help either.

Later, I asked another of my friends–one who speaks English incredibly well–how she would say the word resent. She had to think about it for a long time before finally settling on the word diam. I protested that that meant being quiet. She said that it could also be used for feelings. Even that, though, doesn’t really completely encompass the meaning of the word resentment.

And that’s just how Indonesian is. You say angry and everyone knows what you mean, even though I, as someone who likes picking exactly the right word, am left confused. And, of course, this all ties back into culture. Indonesian culture–and perhaps specifically Javanese culture–is all about everyone understanding something even though no one talks about it. Things are discussed in private, rumors fly around like crazy, but in public everyone keeps a good, quiet face. It’s unsurprising, then, that the language relies so heavily on context, which doesn’t mean that it can’t also be incredibly frustrating for foreigners.

2 thoughts on “Indonesian is Hard to Learn

    • I finally got around to reading this article–thanks for linking it. It’s funny, but I never even considered the thing about bulu. I almost always use it to mean feathers, I guess because I talk about fathers a lot more than I talk about fur.

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