Wearing a T-shirt and flip-flops the woman stands in her roadside stall in a quiet kampung in Yogyakarta, chopping tomatoes, beans, spinach, plus one red chilli. Mixing everything in a peanut sauces she hands the result to customers who putter up on motorbikes and wait on blue plastic stools. She’s curious about me, full of questions, and the feeling’s mutual. It was to chat to people like her that I moved here and enrolled in intensive language study. Yet after hundreds of hours of classes, I can’t understand her.
Everything she says sounds to me like it has half a syllable. I do make out familiar words, but painfully rarely. I wonder what her life is like in this city, how she feels about escalating political and cultural tension in what is a young democracy and the world’s most-populous Muslim-majority nation. But I’m not to know.
She hands me my meal wrapped in newspaper –the text of which I can understand. Bahasa Indonesia baku, I think to myself, of the wrapping – the standard, textbook form of Indonesian. My teachers had mentioned the phrase in class as qualification, emphasising that it was this version of Indonesian we were learning. Initially, the addendum hadn’t struck me as overly important. It should have.
Bahasa Indonesia’s antecedent, Malay, evolved and spread because of the need in maritime Southeast Asia – across the modern nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore – for a lingua franca for trade and other exchanges. Malay as it spread in Southeast Asian marketplaces was grammatically-simple, non-hierarchical, easier to learn than other regional languages. It was the mother-tongue of few, but as people travelled in the region it became their accepted means to communicate. Indeed, the language’s reputation for being both simple and widely-spoken through such a vast area was what compelled me to study it.
Then in the early 20th century, Indonesian nationalists, plotting independence from Dutch colonial rule, agreed that Malay, reformed and renamed Bahasa Indonesia, should become the official language of an independent nation. Malay, according to the Indonesian scholar Benedict Anderson, was “simple and flexible enough to be rapidly developed into a modern political language”.
Meanwhile,Bahasa Indonesia would facilitate inclusion. Hundreds of languages were spoken in Indonesia – though about 40% of the archipelago’s inhabitants spoke Javanese, a highly-complex, hierarchy-infused language. Because no major ethnic group, including the Javanese, would have its mother-tongue as official language, inequality would not be created or reinforced. Bahasa Indonesia would help draw unity out of diversity.
Yet in reality, things aren’t so simple. For standard Bahasa Indonesia is rarely spoken in casual conversations. People think it’s too kaku, meaning rigid and stiff, my language teacher Andini tells me after I admit my difficulties at the roadside stall. Moreover, people sometimes find Bahasa Indonesia inadequate to express what they want. Andini confessed she sometimes shares this frustration, wanting to use words and expressions from a dialect spoken in her home province of East Java.
Part of the problem lies in the language itself. Bahasa Indonesia has fewer words than most languages – Endy Bayuni of the Jakarta Post has written that foreign translations of Indonesian novels tend to read better, while Indonesian translations of foreign novels sound ‘verbose and repetitive’. But there’s also a political dimension.
Because Indonesians learn Bahasa Indonesia in school, then hear it as adults primarily in earnest, dry speeches of politicians, they associate it with homogeneity. This is exacerbated because Indonesian was heavily-promoted during the dictatorship that ruled until 1998, stifling many forms of individual andcultural expression.
Nelly Martin-Anatias of ICDC, Auckland University of Technology, who has researched Bahasa Indonesia use, tells me that standard Indonesian’s association with ‘formal occasions’, like ‘school classrooms’, creates a perception of ‘distance’ or ‘authority’ between speakers.Those who speak it risk looking ‘theatrical’, ‘bookish’,or ‘pompous’.
So a means to linguistically unite the Indonesian nation slowly became rigid, and instead created momentum for linguistic diversity.
People dissatisfied with standard Indonesian have plenty of options. There are hundreds of regional languages and dialects, sometimes spoken intact, sometimes blended with Bahasa Indonesia. Here in Yogyakarta, a city in the centre of Java and the traditional heartland of Javanese culture, Javanese is commonly spoken. That choice often reflects cultural pride. A food vendor who walks along my street every morning pushing his wooden cart and dinging a bell for soto ayam, spicy chicken soup, I also struggle to understand, and it’s because he often breaks into Javanese. He recently asked me something three times before I understood. The question, when I got it, seemed a revealing one: had I yet seen a wayang shadow puppet play, the quintessentially Javanese cultural performance?
Then there’s different types of informal or colloquialized Indonesian. Naturally, Indonesia’s youth trailblaze their own, cooler variants, gleefully made difficult for older ears. Nowadays the internet is colloquial Indonesian’s new frontier. The country has close to the freest speech in Asia, and young Indonesians are fanatical fans of Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, using the platforms to evolve their own language. As Andini and I scroll through Indonesian Twitter feeds during class one day, road-bumps of slang bring me to abrupt and frequent halts.
The impulses of these Twitter users perhaps aren’t so different to my continued impulses, in conversations, to reach for English expressions. English native-speakers frequently use unusual metaphors and colloquialisms, uncomprehending of the difficulties these cause non-native speakers. Yet how tempting it is to let loose from your tongue an expression that articulates perfectly your thought. As Andini tells me more about how Indonesians pepper their speech with regional or youth-specific phrases, I have a terrific urge to say “if the shoe fits”. Reluctantly, I grope around for an Indonesian alternative – and my thought arrives leaden.
While my frustrations come less from Bahasa Indonesia’s inherent limitations than from my incomplete learning of it, many Indonesians – especially middle-class Indonesians, because they tend to learn English extensively during their educations – also leaven their Bahasa with English. On a news show recently, a panellist describing the megacity of Jakarta as it wrestled with populism and racial intolerance used the term ‘melting-pot’.
Indonesia’s communication conundrum is an extreme example of a worldwide linguistic trend. We all enjoy speaking in ways that are as precise, elaborate, witty or beautiful as possible. But using those more complex types of speech, intended to convey nuance, limits the number of people who can understand us. Throughout our intermixed world people juggle inclusive and exclusive communication styles, shifting between the pleasures of close-knit conversations and the desire to reach out to as many people as possible. In the Indonesian archipelago, a mix of different peoples and cultures, one official language was adopted to break down communication barriers; yet different Indonesian regions, generations and social classes frequently feel a need to break from it and employ their own particularised speech, tailored to their specific cultures.
Nelly Martin-Anatias tells me that Indonesia’s different informal and regional speeches allow people to “establish intimacy and identity” when conversing. Among the multiplicity of non-standard language alternatives, with “phonological and lexical differences”, Indonesians can “choose [a] variety depending on the situation and the interlocutors”, thus attaining a speech fully reflective of the complexity of their social worlds.
I tell Andini I want to expand beyond standard Bahasa Indonesia, to start learning some youth speech and key Javanese words, so I can talk more fluently to more people. Andini’s my gold standard for this. Before our class, she was texting people using that east Javanese dialect –while she studied Chinese. Now she pauses her overview of Jakarta slang to ask me about the colloquialism ‘prole’ in an Australian YouTube video.
Yet standard Indonesian – workmanline, textbook Bahasa Indonesia–remains the best way I have to communicate here. What’s a simple way to make people laugh – an alternative to my English colloquialisms? “Waktu harimau datang, saya pergi” (“when a tiger comes, I go”) I tried recently – and got a laugh. Offering condolences, too, is often basic vocabulary – yet how vital the sentiment conveyed. As I operate in standard Bahasa Indonesia, I’m pleased to find plenty of people happy to meet me there. When someone Indonesian speaks to me in a way I easily understand I read significance into it, knowing they’re likely tailoring it for me, adapting themselves, breaking things down as a conscious act of inclusion.
This happens when I take a motorbike taxi home from class –I understand my young driver near-perfectly. His questions are simply phrased:“In your country what season is it now?”, “In your country is there online transport?” My own questions he answers in a way designed to ensure clarity. I awkwardly say some just-memorised slang, and he offers a thumbs-up.
Knowing when to scale up speech styles and when to scale them back, when to prioritise inclusion and when to prioritise precision, and how to successfully balance differing impulses to unity and diversity – that is this language and this country’s challenge, and promise.
A version of this article originally appeared in BBC Travel.