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What is Indonesian-Malay and Why should I Study It?

Indonesia is an archipelagic nation made up of 13,667 islands strung along the equator between Sumatra in the west and New Guinea in the east. Its geographical vastness makes it one of the largest countries in the world, while its diverse and teeming population of over 210 million makes it the fourth most populous. The ethnic diversity of this nation is even more astounding than its sheer size: more than 250 distinct ethnic groups, speaking mutually unintelligible languages, make up its heterogeneous population. The Javanese are the largest of the Indonesian ethnic groups, accounting for about half of the nation’s population. By contrast, there are numerous groups in Papua Barat and elsewhere in eastern Indonesia that count their populations in the low thousands, or even hundreds.One of the powerful binding elements that creates “Unity in Diversity” (Bhinneka Tunggal Ika) among the diverse Indonesian peoples is the national language, Indonesian.

A dialect of Malay, this language was established in the early days of the nationalist movement as a tool to help create national identity – Indonesian identity – during a period when colonial power was maintained in large measure by divide-and-conquer policies designed to arrest the development of supra-ethnic allegiances. In the seven decades since its “establishment”, Indonesian has developed at a phenomenal rate, becoming today a powerful tool for dealing with all aspects of modern life. The great majority of Indonesians now speak this language in addition to their native tongues, and it has given birth to important traditions of fiction, poetry, drama, and critical writing.

All this is interesting, but why study Indonesian? There is, of course, the profoundly important fact that the study and mastery of any other language, any other culture, helps the student achieve a critical perspective for observing every other aspect of experience simply by virtue of the alternative model it offers for structuring the world. This is probably even more true for languages and cultures as far removed from English and the United States as is Indonesian. But for pragmatic bottom-liners there are other, quite pertinent reasons that apply specifically to the advantages for young Americans studying contemporary Indonesian. It is increasingly apparent that America’s future prosperity lies in its participation in Pacific Rim economics. That means first and foremost Asia.

Indonesia is the Asian country with the greatest wealth of natural resources – fisheries, agriculture, forestry, oil, and mining. It makes eminent sense, therefore, for Americans with an eye on the future to prepare themselves with language and cultural skills to supplement training in business-related fields, or in the technical disciplines that supply much of the expatriate expertise contributing so substantially to Southeast Asian development. For students in the social and human sciences, Indonesia is also an important area for the study of linguistics, anthropology, art history, ethnomusicology, history, political science, and related fields, for which the knowledge of field languages is so essential.

The choice of Indonesian has distinct advantages for the prospective student of Asian languages.

  • First of all, unlike Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, it is not written in an unfamiliar script that can take years to master. Instead of thousands of difficult ideograms or multiple-character syllabary sets, it uses Roman script, just like English and the European languages. That means that from day one in the classroom you will be able to read out your texts fluently – with no complicating factors or memorisation nightmares.
  • Second, Indonesian has no tonal system to be mastered, no complex system of honorifics or other linguistic features that can make some Asian languages so difficult for English speakers to learn.
  • Third, it is a language without declensions or conjugations. There are no changes in nouns or adjectives for gender, number or case. Verbs do not take on different forms showing number, person, tense, or mood. In other words, no matter who is doing the action of a given verb (me, you, her, them), or how many are involved in the action (one, two, or many), or when the action takes place (today, tomorrow, yesterday), the form of the verb always remains exactly the same. In addition, Indonesian vocabulary (besides having hundreds of English loan words) is built by adding very regular prefixes and suffixes to short root words, so that every root word you memorise actually represents as many as ten different built-up word forms that you acquire at the same time.

These features help make Indonesian an extremely accessible language in the early stages of study. Some have called it the easiest language in the world to become conversant in – though true mastery of Indonesian, is a rare accomplishment among learners who begin their study as adults.

The Indonesian Language Program at the University of Hawaii is chaired by Dr. Uli Kozok. Dr. Kozok is the maintainer of this and the following other websites: 1 2 3.