Beating the language Barrier – understanding and being understood when you visit Indonesia

Students at Jogjakarta lamguage school playing games as part of learning Indonesian

Most of us fear finding ourselves in a foreign country where we are unable to speak a word of the language. This is perfectly understandable. Not so long ago it could be a horrible experience. But now the digital world has come to the rescue.

IT USED TO BE AWFUL. When you can’t understand what someone is telling you they usually compensate by repeating what they said, only more loudly – much more loudly. When you still can’t understand their eyes tell you they think you are an idiot.

And when you look around and realize that you also have no idea what the hell the signage says you can’t help feeling that maybe they are right.

I learned all this the hard way more than four decades ago. I had arrived in Mexico City for a conference and missed the English-speaking driver assigned to meet me. (It turned into ant adventure which I will tell you about at the end of this article.)

If you have ever had this kind of experience, you will know exactly what I am talking about – a massive wake up call for those of us who subconsciously believe that the whole world knows English.

Suddenly we realize that it doesn’t.

Now Doctor Google has got the answer!

The good news is that if you haven’t yet found yourself in such a situation the odds are that you never will.

Because today THE INTERNET AND DIGITAL TECHNOLOGIES HAVE CHANGED THE WORLD OF TRAVEL and we can easily and quickly communicate just about anywhere.

All you need do is download the amazing and ever-improving GOOGLE TRANSLATE App to your smart phone. Spend a little time to learn its functions and you will have a personal interpreter in your pocket or handbag.

You should never be stuck for a word again, no matter where you are. Certainly not when visiting Indonesia.

What’s more the App is FREE. And you don’t even have to be connected to the Internet!

Those old-style pocket phrase books and electronic translators are now well and truly redundant.

Take a look at the clever things you can do with Translate

Here’s an excellent short video by Canadian Steve Dotto showing just how powerful this App is and how easily it can remove language stress from your travel. He looks at English/French translations. Every time you see or hear the word French just substitute Indonesian.

What Steve’s video doesn’t tell you is that Google Translate will often have problems with colloquial or slang terms or that its overall accuracy – literally or grammatically – has been assessed at around 75%.

It is a not a tool for deep and meaningful conversations, but it is plenty good enough for you to get by. Sometimes it can be a Godsend.

Here are some more examples from the TripAstute Channel of effective ways it can help you when traveling.

Setting up Google Translate for off-line access

First download the app from Playstore (Android) or the App store (for IOS or Apple devices)

Next download the offline Indonesian dictionary using the very easy-to-follow instructions at this link – Google Support.

And here’s a quick video summary from the Commonsense Media for Families channel showing how to use and navigate around the App.

You can get by with English in Indonesia even if you don’t have Translate

You will have much more than Google Translate going for you when in Indonesia. English has been a compulsory subject for all Indonesian secondary school students since 1989. Many primary schools also have English classes.

Consequently, while many Indonesians still have no English, most under 40s will have at least a smattering of words and phrases, though they may initially be shy about using them.

Some are very good – watching YouTube videos and international shows on TV or talking with Westerners have boosted their vocabularies.

Expect shy young Indonesians to want to practice their English with you, maybe even show off their knowledge a little. Take a little time to try chatting with them and compliment them on their efforts – it will be appreciated.

Though you don’t need to speak Bahasa Indonesia to be able to make yourself understood, having a few Indonesian words or phrases sure as heck helps enhance your standing, open doors, and give you an edge when bargaining.

Indonesian regarded as one of the easier languages

This is not hard to achieve – Indonesia is recognized as one of the easier languages to learn. The LaFerpection team explain why in this very short video.

Willing language help will usually be close at hand

If you have no Indonesian, happen to be stuck and don’t have Google Translate, there is usually someone in most official offices, shops and the like who speak at least basic English. Some speak it very well.

They will cheerfully help you out.

Likewise for staff at better hotels, airline desks and the like (and they may be able to handle some Japanese, Arabic, and a Chinese dialect as well). Many taxi drivers also have passable to good English.

Many expatriates have lived for years in the town and cities of Indonesia, especially major centres like Jakarta and Bali, speaking only English, except for the occasional terima kasih (thank you) or satu lagi (one more or one again – usually for ordering a beer).

How and where to learn some Indonesian

A good start would be to try working through one of the beginner modules at https://www.memrise.com/Their‘flashcard’ system of on-line learning is fast, effective, and fun and there are excellent FREE modules.

Memrise is about building vocabulary rather than grammar – but that’s OK because (as we saw above) Indonesian structures and grammar are relatively easy.

If you have a few words, you will be a hit. If you have enough words, you will be pleasantly surprised at how well you can get by.

Podcast style audio lessons

An American and his Indonesian partner have created a series of short conversational audio lessons with words and phrases for common situations. You can download a PDF workbook to support the audio lessons.

Go to https://www.learningindonesian.com/ You can get started with up to 48 FREE lessons. If you want to get serious you can buy access to a premium program for a one-off payment of around $US150.

Another option is https://www.babbel.com/  . This is a paid program but is not expensive and comes with a free trial. It has built a strong reputation with a graduated lesson structure.

Or you can go to YouTube – there are many videos providing help with learning common words and phrases useful to travelers. There are even quite extensive FREE courses.

Specialist Indonesian language schools

If you fall in love with Indonesia and decide to get super serious about learning the language, there are highly regarded specialist language schools in Jogjakarta. They offer inexpensive short and extended courses, including immersion courses.

The leading schools also have low-cost accommodation arrangements and combine the language studies with opportunities to see, experience and learn about the rich cultural and historical traditions of this fascinating city and the surrounding Central Java region.

Australian high school students at Yogyakarta Indonesian language school

This group of High school students from Williamstown in Australia spent time at the Alam Bahasa language school as part of a 2019 Indonesian study tour.

Prior to the COVID pandemic Australian Universities and schools routinely brought summer break student groups to study at the Yogyakarta language schools. 

You can learn more about the Jogjakarta schools with a Google search – the better schools have quite good and active websites … in English.

There are also well-regarded Indonesian language schools in Jakarta and Bandung catering for the expatriate staff of foreign investment businesses and their families, and newly arriving diplomats. 

Having fun with bahasa Indonesia

Indonesians love to laugh and usually have a wicked, if different, sense of humour. This has crept into the language with sometimes poetic and sometimes hilarious allusions and turns of phrase.

If you are learning a little Indonesian and studiously working through literal translations of colloquial phrases, then you had best be prepared to laugh too – probably at yourself – when you learn the colloquial meanings

Here are some examples –

Curi ayam (with a soft c as in ch) – literally translates as stealing chicken. But every young Indonesian knows that it really means looking for lovers other than your spouse or partner.

Cartoon image of thief chasing chicken

This cartoon from Balipuspanews.com does NOT depict the colloquial meaning of ‘curi ayam – stealing chicken’

Cuci mata – literally washing eyes. Colloquially it means “window shopping” in the sense of checking out members of the opposite sex.

Then there are the neat descriptives that have become part of the language.

Kareta api translates literally as fire carriage or fire cart – It’s still the Indonesian term for train long after diesel and electric locos took over from steam.

Mata hari – literally “eye of the day” and it means the sun.

(AHA TRIVIA MOMENT now you know where that notorious – or perhaps very unfortunate – World War 1 spy got her name. Before becoming embroiled in scandal in Paris, she lived for a time in Indonesia as the young wife of a Dutch colonial military officer.)

Kupu-kupu malam literally means night butterfly. Indonesians use it to describe a shady lady of the night – a working girl.

A polisi tidur – a ‘sleeping policeman’ – is a speed bump.

A kambing dibedakin describes someone who is two-faced – literally ‘a goat wearing make-up’.

Telur mata sapi is what you order if you want your eggs sunny-side up – you are literally asking for ‘cow’s eye eggs’.

And sorry ladies, but the common term for beauty spots is tahi lelat – literally fly poo!

Artist's painting of Buaya Dara derpicting Indonesian slang termt

This is how artist Naufal Abshar depicted a Buaya Darat in acrylics and oil pastels at a 2018 exhibition (see below) – Pic indoartnow.com

An Indonesian pejorative that might be worth knowing

A colloquial term well worth knowing is buaya darat – it loosely translates literally as land crocodile. But colloquially it is a very nasty put-down, particularly for a woman to level at a man.

You may see it translated as ‘playboy’ but that’s the softest interpretation

It more likely implies that the guy is some (or all) the characteristics of a belly crawling, woman chasing, compulsive liar, thief, hooligan, con-man, blackguard and scoundrel – as an Aussie might say, complete bastard!

A naïve young Aussie visitor confided to me once about how well he was doing with his Indonesian girlfriend.

“Yair,” he said with a proud and happy smile “She calls me her little land crocodile.”

Poor silly, dumb bule! … I didn’t have the heart to explain.

Don’t worry – you will become accustomed to this hand-held-bidet way of completing your toilet. You might even start thinking of installing them in your bathrooms at home.

IN SUMMARY ...

Make sure you download Google Translate to your phone and/or laptop. Spend some time learning how to use it and be sure to download The App’s Indonesian/English dictionary for off-line access – all BEFORE you leave home.

Banish any trepidation about not being able to speak the language – you can mostly get by quite well without being able to speak a word of Indonesian. And Translate will open new possibilities or at worst be a safety blanket.

If you have the time and inclination, learning a few useful words and phrases before your visit will enhance your standing and probably enrich your holiday.

Remember that there will be moments when you make mistakes, misinterpret what you are hearing, experience frustration, or occasionally screw up ….

So what.

None of this is likely to ruin your holiday or your life. With the right outlook your boo boos’ can trigger lots of laughs and fun.

Don’t be shy or awkward. Have fun with any meanings and expressions you learn. Impress some of the Indonesians you meet and, maybe, bore your friends and family silly after you rerturn home. They will indulge you.

To learn more tips and essentials for your Indonesia visit check out these articles:

Staying healthy when you visit Indonesia – what are the risks?

Managing your travel money in Indonesia – safely and easily

Haggling and Bargaining in Indonesia – when where and how

AFTERTHOUGHT

About that Mexico City experience ...

As discussed above, there are few things more stressful than landing in a foreign country for the first time with no real idea of just where you are going or exactly how to get there.

Especially when you can’t understand a word of the local language.

I vividly remember how helpless I felt touching down for the first time in Mexico City many years ago. I was to attend a conference at the Australian Consulate. I had only the Embassy address and that of a nearby hotel where I was to stay.

This was long before cell phones. And other than “si” and “no” and “hasta la Vista baby”, I spoke no Spanish – zip, zero, nada.

The crowd swept me through Immigration and Customs to the arrivals exit. That’s when the panic hit.

I was to be met by a driver from the Consulate carrying a sign bearing my name … I looked, and I scanned again … people everywhere, but no driver and no name sign to be seen!

Huge crowds at Mexico City Airport arrivals terminal

Crowds awaiting the arrival of the National football team at the Mexico City arrivals terminal. The crowd I faced was not this big but at the time it seemed like it – and unlike me they all spoke Spanish. Pic – Yucatan Times

As I exited Customs a shoving mob of touts rushed me shouting words I didn’t understand and grabbing at my luggage. As they propelled me forward a young lad won the tussle and marched off with my bag leaving me little choice but to follow.

Within no time I found myself roaring down a freeway in a severely beat-up taxi with a swarthy, maniacal driver and a bunch of others out of Central Casting, none of whom spoke a word of English.

I briefly wondered whether I had been kidnapped, but after one of the most hair-raising rides of my life we eventually screeched to a stop … in front of my hotel. To smiles all round.

I have no idea how much over the odds I paid for this experience, and by that stage I really didn’t care – it felt so good just to be alive!

In retrospect It was quite an adventure and there were others to follow in that fascinating city. But it was a shock for me too. I don’t think I had ever felt so helpless and disoriented before.

I try to remind myself of those moments when I see hapless newcomers arriving in countries they don’t know and where they cannot speak the language. Where possible I try to help – it’s not so difficult with Google Translate.

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Douglas Cole

Doug is a former journalist and broadcaster who lived and travelled in Indonesia and Southeast Asia from 2002 to 2018. He returned to Indonesia in mid-2022 after being stranded in Australia by COVID border closures. He is completing a book under the working title ‘INDONESIA – Safely, Easily, and in Comfort.’

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