Bahasa And Identity

After being evacuated from Yogya while Merapi clouded the skies, I spent one week in Jakarta awaiting relocation, and was finally sent by train to Bandung. I continued my Critical Language studies with another Fulbright student for two weeks at Universitas Teknologi Bandung (the same college Sukarno attended in the 1920’s). While the cool mountain air was refreshing, I again felt that my project had not been able to get off the ground. After a few days of waiting and working, still feeling unproductive as I had not spent more than ten days in my site, we finally were given notice that we could return to Yogya. I would promptly restart my classes on Monday.

I applied to the Critical Language Enhancement Award knowing that without it, my mtvU Fulbright project would not be nearly as comprehensive or effective as I want it to be. I had only briefly studied a few chapters in the “Teach Yourself Indonesian” book my parents had given me before I came to Indonesia, and felt highly unprepared to be able to make observations that involved lyrics or storytelling, let alone conducting interviews. AMINEF enrolled me in a language school where I would be able to take multiple one-on-one language sessions per day. I chose to do three per day, which comes to about seven hours a day, five days a week − about as intensive as I could ever manage.

Each session is with a different teacher, of which I had four or five. The teachers would rotate between lessons, and each being from a different part of Indonesia, being different ages, having different personal experiences within their own culture, they lent great insight into what it means to be Indonesian. The fact is that it means a lot of different things. Each region has its own local language (“bahasa” in Indonesian); the island of Java where I am staying has in fact two separate regions. The east is Sudanese, whereas the center and west is Javanese, speaking Bahasa Sundanese and Bahasa Jawa respectively. While Bahasa Indonesian is the national language, there are over seven-hundred local dialects. At my first homestay in Yogya, the Ibu was quite elderly; her nineteen-year-old grandson (who spoke a little English and aspires to study Japanese for his master’s degree) told me that it was even hard for him to understand her sometimes because she would mix Indonesian and Javanese.

After my first two months in Indonesia, my proficiency in Bahasa is developing slowly but surely. I am able to get around town by myself, give directions, I even haggled for the first time today (not that I saved much but I can’t say I’m not proud for making an effort!). I have learned most importantly how to take what little I understand and try to take a deeper look into what my teachers or Indonesians I meet are implying with what they discuss and how they express it. One difficulty I have experienced is that my language school emphasizes formal language, as they teach mostly professionals, embassy employees, and upper-graduate-level students. However, as I face the streets I also face language barriers (there are different words for “you” and “me” or “I” in formal Bahasa and informal Bahasa, for starters). My teachers made some effort to use informal or even casino Javanese language in some lessons, explaining that when I work with children they may not even understand what I am saying, even if it is in perfect Bahasa, if I use the formal language.

Sometimes I will try to persuade my teachers into unplanned, informal interviews. I will ask questions about politics, religion, music, and children and write down vocabulary, first so that I will have the words to refer to later, but also to encourage the teachers to continue the conversation instead of returning to grammar books. A couple of these conversations emphasized the idea of how Indonesian identity differs from island to island. In addition to having different languages, there are different traditional religions, musical styles, musical instruments, dance, dress, architecture, food, and overall social demeanor. Each island has such a distinct identity that I am inspired to travel outside of Java, if only to highlight how distinct Javanese culture and identity is compared to the rest of Indonesia.

For example, one of my teachers from Flores was making comparisons between identities that seemed to reflect local island music. He reported that the people in Flores are very direct and transparent with their emotions and opinions. In Java, people are generally more patient, polite, and enjoy a slower-paced lifestyle (this particular teacher said he has been living in Yogya for over twenty years and has not once seen a Javanese person lose their temper or show anger). He went on to say that maybe this is why Javanese gamelan music is an entirely separate entity from other forms of Indonesian music. Javanese gamelan is slower-paced, and theoretically the range is limited as each percussionist has only a few cymbals or gongs to strike to sound out a select number of notes; my teacher went so far as to call the music “monotone” and “boring,” much like the slower-paced life in Java (not that that’s a bad thing, or that I necessarily agree). Even Balinese gamelan music is much louder and faster. I think it is critical to understand how traditional music is an underlying testament to local identity, and it is fascinating how easily one can notice those nuances here.

As I continue my language studies, my time for musical exploration seems to be limited. But as ethnomusicology theory emphasizes, all cultural and social aspects may (and probably will) have a direct connection to a local musical culture or genres. I am relieved that I have one more month of Bahasa Indonesian language classes, now with a new tutor who will help me narrow my vocabulary and conversation practice to lessons more related to my project. This will help me to better understand performances, to read lyrics, and to speak with locals about how music reflects Indonesian, Javanese, and children’s identity. Though I hope the international language of musical notation will come in handy soon, too.

2 thoughts on “Bahasa And Identity

  1. This is a great description of learning Bahasa and its difficulties! Ive been through the same thing! Most people believe learning Bahasa is easy. Yet when asked if they can read the news paper, understand the news on TV or write a letter to the government the answer is no. So what can they do? Buy two bananas from the market and tell the seller she has a pretty dress. This is not language proficiency.

    I have found classes unhelpful because words do not come out of my mouth and the teachers do not know the process of learning a language. Classes are also boring and expensive. Boring is bad because it turns your brain off. You want that machine humming.

    I suggest 1) getting reader based material (like Assimil or teach yourself)work through it on your own, then pay a student a nominal sum of money to listen to you using the new words in a sentence. Even better if you can use several words in a sentence or recount an experience, tell a story using those new words. The native speaker should only speak to correct pronunciation and structure or ask about the story. Don’t spend more than half your time on this structured study.

    2) Increasing your language contact time and quality. That is increase the amount of time you are exposed to the language in a natural setting buy doing things you like. Example, long lunches and hanging out playing the gamelan. Increase quality by using the language as well as you can. Its easy to keep talking like a baby because people do not expect us to be better.

    3) instead of studying grammar and phonetics get a model. A native speaker of the same sex who you like. When you are stuck imagine how your model would say it and say it. Same sex because it prevents you from having opposite sex body language which can make you look gay (yes Ive actually seen this happens to guys who only speak with their girlfriends) and someone who you like because you ll have all sorts of subconscious barriers mimicking someone you don’t like.

    Indonesia is all kind of random fun! and is completely different when you can speak!

    Great Job!


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