Dangling Confidence and Coconut Heads: The Art of Learning Bahasa Indonesia

One of the reasons I applied for the ETA Fulbright program in Indonesia was to have the experience of living in a country where I did not speak the language, and therefore had to fumble my way through everyday interactions unable to articulate myself with the clarity to which I am accustomed.  Part of this desire stems from my decision to pursue Applied Linguistics for my graduate degree and eventually acquire my TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certification.  I wanted to have an experience similar to that of my students who are ELLs (English Language Learners), in order to help me best serve their needs.  I knew that I could never truly put myself in their shoes, but thought that maybe I could at least come close.

The language barrier has certainly been one of the greatest challenges of living in Indonesia.  Even in my native tongue, I cannot fully describe the frustration of trying to articulate even the simplest ideas and not being understood.

When I first arrived at my site, I had a solid grasp on greetings and could communicate any important needs I might have, but I could not hold any extended conversation with anyone who did not speak English without the kindness of a translator.  I spent a lot of time trying to listen in on the conversations the other teachers were having, and fighting back tears when I realized I did not understand any of what was being said.  I wanted to get to know the people who surrounded me, but could not ask them more than “Apa kabar?” (“How are you?”)  I have never felt so isolated in a crowded room.

Within a few weeks of arriving at my site, I was teaching alone in classes upwards of forty students, some of whose English level does not allow them to understand all directions in English.  After explaining an activity with written and verbal instructions, I would ask students, “Jelas?” (“Clear?”), and at least half of them would shake their heads and reply, “No, Miss.”  Usually, excessively pronounced hand gestures and drawing on the board would eventually result in their understanding, but it was hard not to feel like a failure as a teacher because I could not support my students in their native language.

I admit, I almost gave up trying to learn Indonesian in the beginning.  I have always struggled to learn languages: even after three years of studying Spanish at the college level, my speaking skills were still extremely weak.  The ETA grant is only nine months, and in that time I hope to be able to communicate naturally with the people around me?  It seemed an impossible task, and I was already overwhelmed by the multitude of other cultural differences I was surrounded by.  I convinced myself that my response to people asking me if I knew Indonesian would forever be “Sedikit-sedikit” (a very little), and was fully prepared to throw up my hands in defeat.

But as is so often the case, one of my students changed everything for me.  As I was sitting outside of the asrama (dorm) where I live one night, one of my students sat next to me.  As we chatted about everything from pop music to college majors, I used a handful of the Indonesian words I knew, mostly out of courtesy, recognizing the kindness of this student’s using a language that is foreign to her solely to make me feel welcome.  In response to one of my broken Indonesian phrases, my student said, “I love that you talk Indonesian, Miss.  I think it so amazing that you know Indonesian words.”

Sometimes it is easy for me to forget who I came here for, to selfishly only consider my own struggles.  And that is when I give up.  But I also have to remember how my actions affect those around me.

That was all it took for my determination to be revitalized, and I began to be much stricter with myself about studying Indonesian every day.  We had been given small textbooks at orientation from Wisma Bahasa, an Indonesian Language group based in Yogyakarta, and I had downloaded Stuart Robson and Julian Millie’s Instant Indonesian onto my Kindle before my arrival.  I pulled them out from where they were hidden in my closet and began to belajar (study, or learn) Indonesian with a renewed vigor.  I also enlisted the help of my sitemate, who was also an ETA last year; she not only knows much more Indonesian than me, but she is also an incredibly patient teacher.


I also ceased to passively try to simply listen to the conversations around me, and began to ask questions of the teachers who speak both English and Indonesian.  I began to say “Apa Bahasa Indonesia [insert English word here]?” with far more frequency than “Maaf, tidak mengerti” (Sorry, I don’t understand).  I purchased a small buku tulis (notebook) and began writing down the words people taught me, as well as words from signs and documents that I wanted to look up later.  It might have been the best purchase I have made since coming here.  This tiny blue notebook goes everywhere with me: even if I have woken up late, my hair is a mess, and I have forgotten my cell phone, you had better believe that I have a pencil and my notebook in my bag.

In an effort to further move my language learning away from my desk, I made another simple but life changing purchase: a stack of brightly-colored post-it notes.   I assigned each warna (color) a different kind of word, and began writing down the words I was trying to learn.  Now, my living room has become a learning space.  I put kata baru (new words) around the edge of the mirror near my door, and once I feel that I truly know a word, I move it to the “Word Wall” I have created on one of the walls in my living room.  Though this wall was kecil (small) when I first began, it has since grown considerably, and I look forward to the day when it stretches all the way from one corner to the other, and to the day when it has nowhere to go but up.


I still have trouble navigating most conversations, and I am constantly using incorrect structures and sometimes even incorrect words as I try to speak in Indonesian.  Sometimes, my mistakes can be quite funny, such as when I tried to warn my one of my co-teachers, who was about to hit her head on a cabinet door, “Hati-hati, kelapa Anda!” This translates to “Careful, your coconut!”  What I meant to say was “Hati-hati, kepala Anda!” (“Careful, your head!”)  Needless to say, we still joke about coconut heads in the teachers’ room sometimes.

But generally, my efforts have paid off. My Bahasa Indonesia has vastly improved over the past three months, and I am sure it will continue to do so as my grant continues.  Though I still cannot articulate everything I want to say in my new language, I can recount simple stories from my weekend adventures and ask teachers for their opinions about workshops they attend.  I can use a campur (mix) of Indonesian and English when giving directions or explaining a new grammatical concept in my classes, which not only helps my students’ comprehension and learning, it also encourages my students to try to use English in class, even if that English is as imperfect as my Indonesian.  I have even begun to learn a few words and phrases in Bahasa Jawa (Javanese), the local language spoken by most of the teachers at my school.  One day, as I was trying to talk to one of the drivers in Indonesian, he looked into the rearview mirror and said, in the little English he could muster, “Your Indonesian, not so bad.”  It was the highest compliment anyone could have given me in that moment.


I have a long way to go before my Indonesian is mantap (amazing), but I must semangat (keep spirit), as my students always remind me.  Though for now I still respond to question of whether or not I can speak Indonesian with “sedikit” (a little), which is not much of an improvement from my previous response, I hope that by the time I leave I will be able to smile and say, “Bisa” (I can).


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