8 Tips To Speak Indonesian Like Locals Do
Indonesian is a language spoken by more than 250 million people in the archipelago of Indonesia. Also known as Bahasa, although a national language, it is more of a second language for all Indonesians as the people who live in many islands of Indonesia grow up speaking a dialect native to their locality or ethnic group. It is estimated there are more than 300 ethnic groups and more than 700 languages spoken in Indonesia. Javanese, which comprise 40% of the population, is the second largest language in Indonesia after Indonesian, being spoken by about 100 million people in the country. And due to early transmigration program, many Javanese can be found in the island of Sumatra. Because of the variety of dialects that exist in the country, there are variations of Indonesian spoken by the locals, including variation in pronunciation and accent.
Among the younger generation, the language of Betawi, the colloquial language of Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, is the most popular. Although there are only 10 million people in Jakarta, Betawi receives a high status and popularity as it is commonly used in the mass media and originates from the capital city. People from other parts of the country who receive exposure to the national media (notably from popular television and radio programs), are usually able to imitate the language of Betawi. Newspaper, news broadcast, and other official reporting will strictly use Indonesian although during interviews, some public figures may borrow words from their dialect or speak Indonesian influenced by their dialect.
So, you are doing an Indonesian language course and want to know how to perfect your Indonesian language skills?
Let’s start with the pronunciation. Letters such as f, l, m, n, q, s, x, z are the same as in English. That’s easy! However, letters such as k, p, t, and r are usually mispronounced. English speakers will usually pronounce the letters k, p, and t aspirated, whereas Indonesians will pronounce the letters k, p, and t unaspirated. This is because in the English alphabet, k, p, and t are aspirated. Notice for instance when you say words like key, park, and tea, you will produce a puff of air when you say the consonants. These are called aspirated consonants. On the other hand, when you say words like skate, spa, and stay, the sounds of k, p, and t are unaspirated. The unaspirated version of the letters k, p, and t are what you want to produce when speaking Indonesian. The reverse is true. Most Indonesians when they speak English, tend to produce unaspirated k, p, and t when they are supposed to produce the aspirated k, p, and t.
Tip 1. Do not aspirate the letters k, p, and t
People whose first language is Spanish, Italian, or Russian will have no difficulty pronouncing the Indonesian letter r. People whose first language is English tend to pronounce the Indonesian r as an approximant, just like the English r. The Indonesian r can be either a tap/flap or a trill, depending on the speaker. The difference is that a trill has a longer, more pronounced vibration.
Tip 2. Vibrate the r
Indonesians refer to one another based on social hierarchy. Terms of address are commonly used. You will find that most terms of address are the same as the words used for family members. Ibu, for instance, is used to address one’s mother, but it is also used like the English Ms or Ma’am. Bapak is used to address one’s father, but it is also used like the English Mr or Sir. When addressing a young person who is a few years older than the speaker, the term Kak is commonly used. Kak is also used to address one’s older brother or one’s older sister (no gender distinction). Similarly, when addressing a young person who is a few years younger than the speaker, the term Adik is commonly used. You may be able to guess what Adik means in Indonesian by now. Never ever address someone whose social hierarchy is higher than you by their first name, this includes those older than you, your supervisor, your lecturer, et cetera. Even when they are of similar social hierarchy as you, for example, your team members, in more formal workplaces, you would still want to address them with either Bu or Pak instead of by their first name. What if someone is older than you but is of a lower social rank? You would still address them respectfully with Pak or Bu.
Tip 3. Use terms of address instead of personal pronouns
Particles are one-syllable word that can be inserted in the beginning, middle, or end of a remark to add to the expression. Examples of particles are loh, mah, sih, ya, wah, nah, nih, dong, deh, kok. More than one particles can be used in a statement. The same particle can have multiple functions depending on the context where it is used and the best way to learn which particle to use is through observation.
The video below from BBC Indonesia shows a British man who uses the particle wah to emphasise that something is delicious.
Tip 4. Use particles in your statements
Many words are shortened when spoken colloquially. Instead of bagaimana, gimana is used. Instead of sudah, udah is used. Instead of barangkali, kali is used. Other than using the shortened forms of formal words, colloquial words are also derived by altering the vowel in the words. In other instances, colloquial words are completely different from the formal ones.
Tip 5. Use colloquial words in casual contexts
English is taught in Indonesia as a compulsory subject in secondary schools for 6 years. Furthermore, today there are more than 10 national television stations that air Hollywood movies daily without dubbing. Radio stations are also dominated by English songs. The use of English is perceived to be cool and metropolitan. Many people now refer to handphone purely as handphone instead of telepon genggam. More young people adopt English words in their conversation than older people. There are also many newer words borrowed from English that have replaced the use of their proper Indonesian terms. For example, investasi (from investment) instead of penanaman modal, fisik (from physical) instead of tubuh, kondisi (from condition) instead of keadaan, kompetisi (from competition) instead of pertandingan, and so on.
Tip 6. It’s okay to use English words during conversation
The most popular slang is from Jakarta. Some popular slang words are gua/gue (I), yo’i (cool), lu/elo (you), bokap (father), nyokap (mother).
Tip 7. Use slang
Just like in other languages, sometimes people will replace the names of objects with the brands of those objects. For example, when buying or ordering water, one might say Aqua instead of mineral water. This is because Aqua is the most popular brand of mineral water in Indonesia. When someone wants to buy washing powder, they might use the word Rinso instead, which is a popular local brand for washing powder. When someone says they are looking for Pepsodent, they are referring to toothpaste.
If someone is said to have a nose like Petruk, that means that person has a very long or big nose. Petruk is a fictional character from the Javanese puppet show. If someone makes a reference to Bawang Merah Bawang Putih, he or she is talking about two characters in traditional Indonesian folklore: Bawang Merah the mistreated stepdaughter (much like Cinderella) and Bawang Putih the spoiled daughter of Bawang Merah’s stepmother.
Tip 8. Know local stories, local figures, local products
Now with these 8 tips, you are ready to speak Indonesian like a local.