How Did I Learn Indonesian?

This is a question I am often asked by Indonesian and English speakers alike. After reading a recent post by Keth Toda about being one of the 4%ers of language learners, I’ve decided it is time that I try to remember exactly how I learned Indonesian so that I can determine once and for all if I too was/am one of the 4%ers in the Indonesian Language classroom. 

My first contact with the language was when I was a toddler in about 1963/4. My father was learning Indonesian in Victoria and each night would bring homework home. In those days, the current language methodology was audio lingualism which  required students to listen and repeat drills. Dad had records (vinyl) that he would play and my sister and I would also listen and repeat along with him. To this day we still remember one of the phrases we parroted alongside Dad and funnily enough, I have never used it in conversation!! (Baik baik saja seperti biasa dan bagaimana kabarnya Sri) Looking at it now, I can see how it would be used (asking of someone about Sri) but when I parrot it again now, the intonation is strange. The intontation should lift at the end to indicate a question being asked instead of staying flat as in making a statement. Fascinating that for all those years I have remembered that sentence but only now have I realised why it sounded odd!! Anyhoooo, as a result of listening to those many records with Dad and my younger sister, my father claims that we both could count to 10 in Indonesian before we could in English. 

Once Dad finished his course, we moved to Darwin and my nightly contact with Indonesian ceased. Dad then worked as an Indonesian translator and instructor and many of the people who dropped in after work those days were his (adult) students. I have no memory of any of the conversations, which in retrospect would have been fascinating, but it purely provided them with opportunities to not only practise their spoken Indonesian but also to discuss current Indonesian events (1965, Sukarno, Suharto etc) 

In 1975, I began my formal Indonesian lessons at Casuarina High School. My first teacher was Marie Nicholson and according to the grapevine, CHS was her first teaching placement. She was the first of many teachers I had who quickly realised that my father’s knowledge of Indonesian language and culture far exceeded theirs. It must have been very intimidating as I was by no means the model student. Lessons were very easy and at no time challenging. I grasped Indonesian language grammar naturally even though I generally didn’t pay much attention to the explanation given by the teacher. It was the time of here is the rule, now open your text book and do the 20 practice sentences on page 50 to demonstrate you understand it. I also had the added advantage of being able to ask Dad for extra help when something didn’t gel. I remember too checking with Dad about aspects in the text that I thought sounded incorrect and then returning to school the next day to inform the teacher of what I had learnt. I must have been a horrible student!! 

Also about this time, Dad started befriending many of the Indonesian people now living  in Darwin. They would often drop in and I especially remember Djaffa; a warm hearted and all round lovely fellow from Surabaya. Another lovely Indonesian Chinese person I remember, stayed with us for about a fortnight. By this time, Dad had a fruit and vegetable shop in town. One day he was chatting in the shop with (probably) Djaffa. Linda (the Indonesian Chinese lady) had been in Darwin for several days and was feeling very lonely and homesick. She walked past our shop and was gobsmacked to hear Indonesian being spoken. Apparently she came inside and burst into tears she was so delighted to find someone to talk to. All the Indonesian people that we had contact with in those days only spoke Indonesian when visiting, so I had lots of opportunity to hear Indonesian. I rarely spoke Indonesian in front of my father as I didn’t want to be criticized, but I did commmunicate very basically in Indonesian with them if they dropped by when Dad was out. 

My first visit to Indonesia was in 1976 with my brother and sister and my parents. We visited Bali & Surabaya for 2 weeks with most of our time spent in Surabaya. I have many memories from this trip. My first was going with a relation of Djaffa’s to their family house with just my sister. We were led through many narrow ‘gang’s’ (alleys) and as we walked we were followed by an increasing throng of people. We finally reached a house and were escorted into the kitchen and given chairs to sit on. The room we were in was not very big and it quickly filled up with curious onlookers until it was standing room only. No one talked to us, everyone just gawked and laughed at us. It was extremely confronting and after about 5 mins (felt like 5 hours) we stood up and fled back to the hotel! My other memory is learning the word ‘pelacur’. I remember standing up on the 2nd or third floor, looking out at the ‘kupu kupu malam’ (prostitutes) and asking Dad loudly, “Are they ‘pelacurs’?’ He was mortified!! 

My formal learning of Indonesian continued to year 12 with Indonesian being the only subject that my father showed any interest in. As long as I was getting A’s for Indonesian, my Cs and D’s for geography, maths, biology were totally disregarded. As my matriculation present, my father paid for me to join him in Indonesia. I went with the sum total of $45 which needless to say, didn’t last long. I ended up staying about 3 months and had Dad been slightly more generous with funds, I could have been tempted to stay longer. My spoken Indonesian improved phenonomally at this point. Dad lived in a losmen and his pembantu, Bu Badung, was instructed to only speak Indonesian to me. Her English was rudimentary and had been learned on the beach selling massages, so it was considerably easier to speak to her in Indonesian. While cooking (she is an amazing cook) I would sit with her in the kitchen and listen to her stories. As time passed I began understanding more and more of what she was saying. Many of her stories were repeated, so each time I heard them, I would pick up a little bit more. If I was totally puzzled, Bu Badung would explain a word to me in Indonesian and then continue on with the story again.  Dad too, credits Bu Badung largely for his proficiency. 

After my 3 months of  immersion, I had very little opportunity to use Indonesian again in Australia untii teachers college. I chose Salisbury CAE purely because it offered Indonesian. There I met the indomitable Ani Be, a true legend, who was and still is, a force to be reconed with. I studied Indonesian for 2 years and when the going got tough, I quit. In 3rd year, the work load for Indonesian trippled and suddenly we were expected to do as much for Indonesian as we were doing for all our other subjects combined! In retrospect, this was largely because we were suddenly expected to exponentially increase our vocabulary. Gone were the text books which had been so easy for me and in their place were newspaper articles where every other word was unfamiliar. This was pre google translate unfortunately!! Would have been such a different outcome had I had access to an online dictionary! 

I have since lived in Indonesia and traveled widely throughout Indonesia, both of which have kindled my love for all things Indonesian and have provided me with many opportunities to further improve proficiency. 

Wow, I definitely was not a 4%-er! Grammar rules did not help me at all as they were boring and mindless tasks that in no way helped me with my proficiency. What did help was listening to people talking! That was how i formulated my understanding of language and grammar.  I knew what the rules were, I just could not articulate the how or why. Rules were acquired instinctively, and having the opportunity to listen to the rules being modelled repeatedly together with opportunities to speak and have a go myself, was and still is, the way I learn best. Listening and speaking therefore have been the major 2 strategies I have benefited from. The fact that I can still parrot ,”Baik  baik saja seperti biasa dan bagaimana kabarnya Sri.” is testament to that!  

No wonder TCI struck a chord with me!!


Photo in header : Bu Badung in 1980 at Pasir Putih, Java

4 thoughts on “How Did I Learn Indonesian?

  1. Anne MacKelvie says:

    Hi Bu Cathy,
    My name is Bu Anne, I teach Indonesian to P-4 at a school in Victoria. I love your info about TPR and have been reading lots of the links you recommend. I know I am not using anywhere near enough Indo in my classroom for the students to learn it properly. My instinct is that it is the way to go, however, I am really concerned that my Indonesian is not good enough, I constantly seek for words I don’t have in my lexicon everytime I try to use more Indo in the classroom. Do you think I can make a success of this given I am not fluent in Indonesian (probably medium level)? Would love to meet you, what state are you teaching in?


    • bucathy says:

      I teach in rural South Australia. I definitely believe you have enough of a grasp of Indonesian to teach using TCI. Considering that at the primary level we need to focus on the very basic vocabulary that is needed for simple communication. I love TCI because it achieves just that.


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