Struggling to Communicate With Others in Bahasa Indonesia? (Problems and Solutions)

When we move to a foreign land, we all know how important it is to learn the language of its people. Without understanding the language of a culture, we can never truly understand the culture itself . . . and this can make life very difficult.


Mexicans in Mexico will make no apologies for not understanding you if you don't speak Spanish.  Japanese and Chinese citizens will likely just stare at you blankly if you don't use their national language. And English speakers in Australia, the UK, and the USA will often just tell you point-blank, "Speak English," if you try to talk with them in any other language.


So, when you decided to come to this beautiful country, you were no-doubt fully prepared to learn its national language, Bahasa Indonesia, in order to be functional and to be received warmly by those around you.   


But if you arrived in Indonesia as an English speaker, you were probably quite surprised to find that Indonesians do not seem to be critical of you if you don't speak their language.  On the contrary, the locals have a tendency to apologize to you for not speaking English.


Moreover, they never seem to miss an opportunity to switch to English when they encounter a native English speaker.  


Of course, this behavior has its benefits for you as a non-speaker of Bahasa Indonesia (albeit 'undeserved' benefits), but it also comes with one great 'disadvantage': it makes it much more difficult for you to learn Bahasa Indonesia . . . which you really need to do if you're ever going to become fully functional in Indonesia and connect with your friends and colleagues.


So, let's look at some of the problems you likely face on a day-to-day basis, then consider the reasons for those problems and some possible solutions:


PROBLEM 1

You're at a small shop. You attempt to converse with clerks and workers in Bahasa Indonesia, but they consistently respond to you in English.  You say, "Selamat pagi," and they respond with, "Good morning, Mister." You say, "Terima kasih," and they answer, "You're welcome."


Possible Reasons:  

People in the service sector often have very limited education in English, and they rarely get a chance to use what little English they do possess. When they recognize you as a native English speaker, they're often genuinely excited by the opportunity to practice their English . . . and, in some cases, they just want to show off their skills to their friends.


Possible Solutions:

Take a moment to acknowledge the language skills of the speaker by having a bit of back-and-forth in English. But then ask her/him to speak to you in Bahasa Indonesia because your Indonesian is not good and you need to practice, "Tolong bicara Bahasa Indonesia. Bahasa Indonesia saya tidak bagus dan saya harus latihan."


Ironically, in most cases, the person who was initially so enthused to speak to you in English will suddenly become super-enthusiastic to speak to you in Indonesian. He'll feel honoured by the respect you're demonstrating for his culture, and he'll immediately oblige you by speaking to you slowly in Bahasa Indonesia.


If you do this all over town, the entire city will eventually become your "school." You'll soon find that you have "Bahasa Indonesia teachers" everywhere - at every single place you frequent on a regular basis.


PROBLEM 2

You walk into a fast food restaurant and place your order : ”Selamat sore. Saya mau pesan burger keju" (Good afternoon. I would like to order a cheeseburger). And the cashier repeats your order in English, ”OK, you would like to order a cheeseburger."

You think to yourself, "Why was it necessary for the cashier to repeat my order in English?  Is there something wrong with my Indonesian?


Possible Reasons:

The cashier sees that you're an expat and she's signaling to you that she's prepared to speak to you in English. Her response is NOT an indication that there is something wrong with your Indonesian.


Possible Solutions:  

Quite simply, don't switch to English and continue speaking to the cashier in Bahasa Indonesia. When she sees that you're willing and able to communicate with her in Indonesian, she'll likely immediately drop the English.


PROBLEM 3

You're at a department store and you ask a clerk, "Di mana sepatu pria?" (Where are the men's shoes?). Then, before answering your question, the clerk repeats your question back to you - exactly as you just said it in Indonesian: "Oh . . . di mana sepatu pria?  Di lantai 3." (on the third floor.)


If you're like most language learners, it's always a bit discouraging to have Indonesians repeat your statements back to you.  When you ask a question, the only response you want is an answer.  If you ask, "Di mana sepatu pria?", you want the clerk to reply, "Oh, lantai 3. "Then you know that you're using the language correctly.


If the clerk repeats your question before answering, it seems to imply that you didn't speak properly so the Indonesian is repeating your statement correctly before responding to it.


Possible Reasons:

Repeating your question before answering is nothing more than a "reflex action" on the part of the listener.


The reflex to repeat a question before answering is known as "echoing," and it's something that most of us do when we converse with small children or people who speak our language with a foreign accent.


When a young child says, "Daddy, can you help me fix my toy car," we tend to respond with, "Oh . . . you want me to fix your car?  OK, let me try to help you." Likewise, when a man speaking with a very strong Polish accent asks us a question, we tend to do the same.


Possible Solutions:

Don't worry about it. It has nothing to do with your language ability. Be forgiving and remember that "echoing" is a sin that most of us commit without even realizing it.

Why does your language teacher does not do it?  Because, as teachers, we're trained NOT to do it.


PROBLEM 4

You speak to someone in Bahasa Indonesia but they can't understand a word you're saying. You repeat yourself over and over again - in perfect Indonesian - but the person reacts like you're speaking in some ancient Zulu dialect.


Possible Reasons:

The person is quite simply terrified and is 'freezing up' on you. She/he has probably rarely dealt with a foreigner, and is so afraid you might try to speak in English that she/he can't hear a word you're saying - even if you speak in perfect Indonesian!


Possible Solutions:

There's little you can do to fix this problem . . . but what you must NOT do is show any frustration.  If you express annoyance and impatience with such people, they will only 'freeze up' more.


But one tip to help you deal with "scared" people:  

When you begin to speak, say only one or two words in Indonesian, then leave a long pause before you continue your sentence.  e.g. "Permisi Bu . . . (pause) . . . ada kopi atau teh manis?" (Excuse me Madam . . . do you have coffee or sweet tea?).


By saying only one or two words in Indonesia, then pausing, you give the listener a few moments to realise that you're going to speak to her/him in Indonesian, not in English. Sometimes this will cause the listener to lose her/his fear and actually hear what you're saying.


PROBLEM 5

You're at your workplace and all your colleagues are fully bilingual, able to speak both Bahasa Indonesia and English equally well. As hard as you try to converse with your co-workers in Indonesian, they persist in communicating with you in English.


Possible Reasons:

1.  In the Indonesian culture, great importance is placed on one's AGE and RANK. Indonesians are expected to show respect for older persons and for superiors in the workplace. Consequently, you'll find (if you're a 'boss' who is some years older than most others at the office) that your colleagues will be hesitant to speak to you in Indonesian. Why? Because (i) they don't want to make you feel bad when they don't understand what you're saying, and (ii) they don't want to correct you when you make grammatical errors. For most Indonesians, these behaviours are just too disrespectful.


2.  If your colleagues are fluent in English, they may not want to see their workflow slowed down by trying to communicate with you in Bahasa Indonesia. After all, everyone can speak English, so it's much more efficient to simply communicate in a language that everyone is familiar with.


3.  Your coworkers may see you as an opportunity to improve their English language skills. They're, perhaps, not aware that you're equally-interested in learning Bahasa Indonesia.


Possible Solutions:

As recommended above, simply inform your co-workers that YOU want to learn THEIR LANGUAGE, and ask them to speak to you - as much as possible - in Bahasa Indonesia.  

And, most importantly . . . give them permission to correct your errors!!!  Say to them, "I really need your help guys.


P-l-e-a-s-e tell me whenever I make an error. I can only improve my Indonesian if you correct me when I make a mistake."  


Your co-workers will likely be very impressed with your humility and, with your permission to "stand corrected," they should be more than happy to forget about your "age and rank" and help you develop your language skills.


To keep you motivated as you deal with your daily struggles to communicate with others in Bahasa Indonesia, let us close with a recent comment from a former LSI student who has now lived in Indonesia for 12 years :

"When I first arrived, I would simply say to Indonesians, "selamat pagi" or "terima kasih" and they would feel 'honoured.' Even though they knew I could barely speak another word, I gained the respect of Indonesians, just for trying to speak in their language.
"But when I stayed for 3 years and still couldn't speak, I found that I lost the respect of Indonesians.
"Clearly, my lack of effort to learn the national language and my continued expectation that Indonesians come to me in English showed a deep disrespect for their culture"
"This was the motivating factor that finally got me moving."

Selamat belajar, happy studying.

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