Learning a new language can be fun and stressful at the same time. Fun, because we are embarking on a new journey, full of unexpected experiences and amazing adventures. Stressful, most likely because we are not prepared for the journey.
Show of hand (or share your story in the comment section), how many of you – or someone you know – have attempted to learn another language and instead of enjoying the whole process, wishing that it would end as soon as possible?
How many of you have postponed learning Indonesian for whatever reason or excuses?
Yes, just like going on a trip, the better you are prepared, the less stressful it would be.
Now, as I am an Indonesian language teacher for foreigners, and have been teaching for 15 years, allow me to give you a brief list of the things you must prepare before you start learning Indonesian. And with a tweak here and there, I believe this list can also be applied to any language you want to learn.
1. Take a Peek on Its History
Well, you do not need to learn the whole history with names, events, and dates; just a little peek. Bahasa Indonesia has a unique history, I promise. If I bore you in the next two paragraphs, you can skip the whole article at once.
Bahasa Indonesia is not a natural language, it is a reconstructed language. What it means is that we take the basic structure and vocabulary from the lingua franca of the archipelago, and create a newer language. On top of that, we then established bahasa Indonesia as the official language of the country.
Why is this important to know? The lingua franca we are talking about has been used as the trading language across the archipelago since the 13th century. Meanwhile, the reconstruction process only began in the early 1900s. This difference creates a vast gap between spoken Indonesian and written Indonesian. Simply put, almost all Indonesians speak bahasa Indonesia but not all learn it from school. Therefore, you might think you encounter two different languages, while they are one and the same.
2. Have an Open Mind
Having an open mind is indeed easier said than done. Unfortunately, whatever language you are going to learn, you must have an open mind. As we all know, language can not be separated from the culture where it is spoken. It both shapes and is shaped by the culture, while evolving alongside the culture.
In order to learn Indonesian (or any language at all) effectively, you need to open your mind, especially when the language comes from a very different culture than yours. The cultural difference can cause misunderstandings, and at times, offense.
You might be shocked or even offended when an Indonesian asks your age, your marital status, or where you live. It’s cultural. We need to know how old you are so we can put you on our family tree, so we can decide how to address you appropriately. We need to know your marital status so when we invite you, we will take into account how many people we are actually inviting, what type of events we can invite you to, and what time you should be home. We need to know where you live so we can consider whether it is safe or not to let you go home alone at night, for example.
And you might be puzzled when you find us uncomfortable or even offended when you address us as ‘Anda’ or even ‘kamu’, or when you compare us to puppies, or when you tell us that you broke your arm. Yes, ‘Anda’ and ‘kamu’ can be offensive. Yes, any comparison to animals is rude. And yes, we would think you deliberately broke your own arm.
Having an open mind will enable you to allow these cultural differences to exist equally – no one culture is weird or even wrong. They are just different.
3. Set Your Goal
Along my career, I encountered many learners who did not have any set goals. Without a set goal, it will be difficult for your teacher to create the most suitable lesson plans for you. It will be difficult for you, too, as the goal post can keep moving all the time, and you will end up feeling either you learned nothing or your teacher overwhelmed you with things you do not need.
Take into consideration the amount of time that you are willing to commit to learning, the budget you have, and what motivated you to learn. Having a clear, achievable goal, will encourage you even more when you have achieved it.
4. Know Your Learning Style
Whether you realize it or not, the way you learn new things might be different or even unique compared to others. Do you like to have textbooks, for example, so you can prepare before every lesson and revise it after the fact? Do you prefer to have homework? Do you need visual aids?
Recognizing your learning style – and communicating it to your teacher – will help both of you along the journey. The teacher will be able to create lesson plans to suit your style, and you will learn much more efficiently.
5. Commit Time, Energy, and of course, Money
The success of your learning relies heavily on your commitment. When you start learning, if you do not commit, you are not only wasting your money, time, and energy, but also your teacher’s time and energy.
If you can commit only one day per week, make it worthwhile. Please take into consideration that for every one hour of lesson, you need to commit one hour to prepare and another one hour to revise. Make sure that you can avoid any distraction that may occur during the hours you have committed.
You also need to put aside some money for your learning budget. Consider it as a long-term investment.
6. Choose the Right Teacher
It is a common knowledge that not everyone who speaks a language can also teach it. They might be able to tell you whether or not you make mistakes, but rarely can they explain why. Not to mention the lack of knowledge and experience on language learning methods.
Do your research. Ask around.
I have a little tip when you decide to ask in an online forum or facebook, for example. Make a list of all self-promoting teachers or language schools, and put them aside. Focus on the recommendations made by people you know, preferably those you’ve met. When you have a chance, ask them privately why you should learn with the teacher they recommended. If there are more than one names, list them along with all the pluses and minuses that you learned from your facebook friends.
Reach out to those in the top three or five on your list. Invite them for coffee. Discuss your goals, your learning style, and ask them what they can offer and what you can expect by the end of your committed time to learn. Talk about other things as well, to find chemistry between both of you.
Trust me, chemistry will play a very important role in your learning.
7. Make Local Friends
What is the point of learning a language if you do not use it outside of the class? Make friends, preferably native speakers of Indonesian. It’s better to befriend them before you start learning, to give you exposure to the language. Catch as many words, phrases, and expressions as you can, and let your teacher explain the proper usage of each one of them.
Of course, you can start with the waiters at your favorite restaurants, your cook or your staff. But there are several downsides. First, when you meet them, they are at work. They might not have the time to be involved in conversations with you. Second, they might not have the same interests as yours. Your conversations will only revolve around pleasantries, and nothing beyond.
It might not be easy for you to make new Indonesian friends, especially if you do not live in Indonesia, or if you are a shy person. You can try coming to events and joining forums where you might find Indonesians.
Having local friends will significantly improve your learning. You can immediately use what you have learned in the class with them. They will not hesitate to correct you when you make mistakes, and when you speak perfectly, their reaction will make you more motivated to learn.
Of course, there are still a number of other things you need to prepare. The list above is what I find most helpful based on my experience as a teacher. Should you have questions, drop a comment, message me on my social media, or email me.
More pieces on learning Indonesian coming soon.
Ubud, September 14, 2022.