Favorite Indonesian Words and Phrases

After three years of living in Indonesia, I have been lucky to learn quite a bit of Bahasa Indonesia.  I in no way consider myself fluent, but I function fairly well, and I am incredibly thankful for that.  While learning this dynamic and wonderful language, I have come across a few phrases that I have really come to love.  Some are funny, some are beautiful.  But I love them all, and wanted to share them here.

Tidak apa apa.  This literally translates to “No what what,” and using the English version is guaranteed to make a classroom of English-learners giggle uncontrollably.  It means “no problem,” or “it’s okay,” and Indonesians say it all the time.  Yes, sometimes this relaxed nature can get on my nerves, and I find myself ranting in my head: “That is not something you can just tidak apa apa!”  But at the end of the day I admire it, and feel that people in my own country could learn something from this.  And I love the various ways different regions shorten the phrase: “Tak pa pa,” “Ga pa pa,” and even “gpp” in sms.

Hati-Hati.  This phrase means “Be careful.”  It can be used on its own, like when you might warn a small child not to touch a stove.  But it can also be used as part of the larger phrase “Hati-hati di jalan,” or “Be careful on the road,” which is said almost every time you part ways with someone.  What I love about this phrase is that hati is also the word for the metaphorical heart[1].  That this phrase so directly connects the idea of parting ways with someone to the heart is still so touching to me, even after three years of hearing it almost every day.

Mandi bebek.  Mandi is the Indonesian word for “shower” or “bathe,” and in a country where cleanliness is of the upmost importance and people will probably be shocked if you tell them that you shower only once a day, this is an important word to know.  Mandi bebek means “duck shower” and this is a short shower, in which you just rinse your body and don’t wash your hair or use soap.  Any equivalents I know of in English are either far cruder or far less adorable, and as the queen of mandi bebek (a quick rinse-off at the end of a hot day of teaching is so key to decent mental health), I was ecstatic when I learned this word existed.

Anda.  This is the formal Indonesian word for you.  It is always capitalized, while no other pronoun is.  As a native speaker of English, where the capitalized pronoun is “I,” the word for the self, I am fascinated by this emphasis on the other, and the diminishing of the self.  There is a selflessness in Indonesian culture that is beautiful, and it seems it comes out even in the language.

Malu-malu kucing.  This literally translates to “shy-shy cat,” and it is usually used to good-naturedly tease someone who is shy, or malu-malu.  Teachers use it all the time to coax students who are too embarrassed by their English to speak up in class: “Jangan malu-malu kucing!” (“Don’t be shy-sky cat!”).  And it often works.  The very fact that the phrase is amusing often helps nervous students to relax and smile at least a little, and I wish there was a phrase in English that could do the same.

Belum and Sudah.  Belum means “not yet,” and sudah means, “already.”  While there are words for yes and no in Indonesian, iya and tidak, to respond to many questions it is far more common to use the words belum and sudah, and I have always found this particularly fascinating when it comes to belum.  “Have you eaten?”  “Belum.”  “Have you studied for a graduate degree?”  “Belum.”  Have you been to Lombok?” “Belum.”  There is the assumption that just because you haven’t done something yet, doesn’t mean you never will.  And so, you don’t answer with a firm no, but merely a “not yet.”  There is an inherent optimism and recognition of opportunity in this phrasing that I find really wonderful, and it has made me re-think how I think about the future.

Mandi hujan.  This means, “rain shower,” and is the word used for playing in the rain, and many Indonesians use it even if the mandi hujan was unintentional.  If I come home soaked to the bone, because I forgot my umbrella, I joke with the security in front of the building that I was mandi hujan.  I learned this phrase from one of my students, who loved mandi hujan so much that he simply could not stay still if the rain started to fall.  Almost every time we had class together, because his English class fell at a time when the rains would come like clockwork, the way they do in Indonesia, he would start to dance in his seat and look longingly out the windows.  I would help him to focus as best as I could, and if he could finish his tasks for that day, and could show me that he understood his homework, he would look up at me and say, “Mandi hujan, miss?” and I would let him leave class a few minutes early, and would see him later on, walking home, soaking wet and deliriously happy.  Rain has always brought me joy, and cloudy days have never been dreary for me.  My student’s shared love of rain has made this one of my favorite Indonesian phrases.

Bapak, Ibu, Kakak, and Adik.  The simplest translations for these words are: Bapak as “father,” Ibu as “mother,” kakak as “older sibling,” and adik as “younger sibling.”  These are used to talk about actual family members—my brother, for example, is my adik laki-laki—but it is also used as a form of address in many parts of Indonesia.  Older women are Ibu, or Bu, and older men are Bapak, or Pak.  Anyone similar in age or only slightly older is kakak, or kak and younger folks are adik, or dik.  You use these words even when you meet someone for the first time, and I am fascinated by this immediate familiarity.  Like Anda, this seems to echo something in the larger culture that I have observed: in such a communal society, neighbors and even strangers are like family.

This is in no way an exhaustive list of the Indonesian words and phrases I have come to love, and I am sure that I will learn more wonderful Indonesian even during the last month I have left.  But I hope that you all enjoyed this list!




[1] Regarding physical body parts, jatung is “heart,” and hati is “liver.”  This means than an alternative translation for hati-hati di jalan is “Liver-liver on the road,” something my students in English Club found hilarious, and so we used that phrase exclusively for the year.


When a Brain Child Grows Up: The Bahasa Project

Throughout my first grant as an ETA, the best teachers I had as I tried to learn Bahasa Indonesia were my students.  I had bought and borrowed textbooks, I searched online for resources, but nothing was as effective as the enthusiasm and humor my students brought to my bumbling attempts to master their language.  I wished on more than one occasion that I could somehow bring my students to every Bahasa Indonesia learner.

This was the spark that brought me to head a project that stretched across the great archipelago of Indonesia, The Bahasa Project.  The aim of the project is to create a series of videos, and sometimes supporting materials, to help folks who may want to learn Bahasa Indonesia or one of the hundreds of local languages spoken throughout the country.  To do this, ETAs enlist the help of their students and other members of their school communities, the true experts in the field, as they talk, tease, and tell their stories in these languages each and every day.

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Almost a third of the 2015-15 ETA cohort created such videos with their students.  This is not the sort of project you can tackle on their own, and I was awed and thankful for the amount of support my crazy idea received after I pitched it to the cohort.  This project would not be what it is without them.

Facilitating the making the videos with my own students was an absolute joy.  I placed control of the project firmly in their hands, from selecting the topic and subsequent vocabulary, to writing and developing the script (I helped with editing a bit), to the directing and acting while the video was being filmed.  I supported them, but refused to tell them what to do with the project: it was they who were the teachers now.

My English Club girls rose to the task at hand, and created not one but two videos for the Bahasa Indonesia section of the project, both about describing people’s personalities.  The thoughtfully crafted skits for each vocabulary word, checking with me to make sure certain examples would make sense to someone outside of Indonesian culture, and adding cultural explanations where needed.  Their skits were effective, creative, and almost always hilarious.  While the filming was taking place, my job was generally limited to pressing the record button on my camera and making sure that everyone was in frame, while my girls tweaked parts of the script, determined whether or not they needed to retake a scene, and teased one another good-naturedly for forgotten lines or for laughing before the scene was over.

Plenty of fun was had by all, and more than once we all ended up on the floor in stitches.  At the same time, my girls treated the project with a seriousness that made me feel like I was on the set of a real movie on occasion.

Many of the students in my English Club were too shy to so much as say hello to me in English when I first started holding English Club meetings, but they stuck to it and kept trying, and their hard work really showed as they tacked this project.  Working with students in this way is one of the most wonderfully humbling experiences I think anyone can have, and I feel blessed to have been a part of this.

In the end, it was time that got in our way, as it always does.  While we had planned out the video for Bahasa Gorontalo, because school was repeatedly canceled we did not have enough English Club days to film it together.  I ended up filming it during my last week at site, and did far more directing than originally planned.  Even so, it was great fun to do, as it involved more students and even some of the teachers.

Due to time and the fact that my old laptop was on its last legs, editing the videos—something my students and I had planned to do together—had to wait until I returned to the states.  While I have at this point shared the completed videos in the English Club Facebook Group, but a large part of me still wishes we had been able to watch them for the first time together.  I comfort myself by knowing that waiting allowed me to create a much higher-quality video, to truly showcase the talent of my students.

Technology and time meant I was not the only ETA whose videos were not finished at the end of the grant, and a few tweaks needed to be made to several of the videos handed to me at our end-of-year conference.  I didn’t really mind one bit, as this meant I had the privilege of seeing the brilliant work made by other students and ETAs from across Indonesia before they were even posted to YouTube.  Though enough videos have been uploaded for the project to go live, there are more videos on the way, and I cannot wait to see what other schools have produced.

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The young people I get to meet and work with as an ETA impress me in a million ways each and every day, and this was just one more chance for them to blow me away.  I am incredibly proud of the work all of the students and ETAs have accomplished in The Bahasa Project, and humbled and blessed to have been a part of it.



Website: thebahasaproject.wordpress.com

YouTube Channel: www.youtube.com/channel/UC6MFZUgG58VZRkqyuFIJ4vA


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).