Saturday, July 24, 2010

Bahasa Indonesia: Esperanto for the Archipelago

At the suggestion of the woman who preceded me in Magelang, I'm using a copy of the Teach Yourself series--appropriately titled, Teach Yourself Indonesian--and podcasts produced by to familiarize myself with Bahasa Indonesia. So far so good; the book provides a solid introduction to the written language while the podcasts make it audible, albeit in very small and halting doses between soothing snippets of gamelan gonging.

A language of national unity, Bahasa Indonesia is based on Malay and at least in books and on tape doesn't borrow too heavily from English for vocabulary. Which seems a little odd, given the country's position on mandating English-language instruction for students. You'd think there would be some carryover. I guess we'll see whether there's more bleed of English into Indonesian than my materials are letting on. Whatever the case, Indonesian is from the outset a politically and philosophically interesting language; it's a kind of Esperanto for an archipelago that's to language what the Galapagos are to fauna.

According to some estimates, Indonesia is home to upward of 700 distinct languages. As Indonesian nationalists sought to unify the former Dutch colony during their struggle for independence after World War II, they promoted Bahasa Indonesia as a linchpin to their enterprise. The language was intentionally promoted and promulgated across the island chain in order to solidify bonds between those whose first languages were and are Javanese or Sundanese or Balinese (not the ZZ Top tune) or Madurese or whatever. Of course, it was also imposed on plenty of otherwise uninterested and deeply resistant speakers of local languages in places like Acheh and East Timor.

But I'm not dealing with the complexities of how Indonesia became an independent state, or how it maintained national cohesion through means considerably more forceful than language. I'll get to that history as I better understand it. What I'm interested in at the outset of my Indonesian language studies is that the official, national language of the country is a second language for almost everyone, and that it's something of a deliberate construct. The language pre-dated the Indonesian nationalist movement but it was appropriated and championed as a political solution to a problem of national unification. This is pretty cool from the perspective of a historian or political scientist, and it's potentially a boon for the student of Indonesian.

As a second language, Bahasa Indonesia has a kind of rough-and-ready, usable quality that seems to invite participation and to accommodate plenty of mistakes. It's spelled phonetically (based on a Latin alphabet), has relatively simple and straightforward pronunciation, and lacks verb tenses. Likewise, nouns stay the same whether singular or plural. Some sources, like the Lonely Planet phrase book, suggest that word order in sentences is also kind of fungible. I'm admittedly just getting started but am gaining some confidence that I'll be able to make myself at least a little clear as I hit the ground next month. Jury's definitely out on that, though.

Cat scat coffee

A lesser Indonesian export of some interest:,0,5045621.story

Living perilously

So after much agonizing and not a little flip-flopping over the last month, I'm headed to Indonesia this fall on a Fulbright teaching fellowship. Peace Corps and 27 months in Cambodia are out; the volcanic vistas of Central Java are in. I leave mid-August and will be gone for at least nine months.

I received my teaching assignment earlier this week and I'll be working at a vocational high school in a small and relatively backwater burg called Magelang. Map it and you'll see it's located near the Borobudur temple complex, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and just downwind from Mt. Merapi, the most fearsome volcano on an archipelago filled with murderous mountains. A relatively short motorcycle ride away to the south is Yogyakarta, a regional city considered the cultural capitol of Java (puppet theater, gamelan, batik, one small ice rink in a mall), and to the northwest lies the Dieng Plateau, home to hundreds of Hindu temples dating from the 8th and 9th centuries. Jakarta's hours away to the west, which I think sounds just fine. Bali's an hour flight from Yogyakarta. Not bad. Magelang itself is home to Indonesia's military academy and to a couple small colleges. It's a jumping off point for visitors to Borobudur but doesn't rate a mention in the otherwise-comprehensive Lonely Planet guide. Not sure what to make of that just yet. No mention?

I'll be teaching conversational English to kids who are basically in the 10th and 11th grades. The school has about 2,500 students, most of them boys and almost all of them Muslim. I'll likely be living on campus. The Fulbright teacher who worked at the school last year said she had a small two-bedroom house that sat smack in the school parking lot. In addition to air-conditioning units for the bedrooms, the house also apparently is home to the occasional scorpion. It does, however, have hot water service in the bathroom.

From the bedroom window, I'll look on Mt. Merapi. Designated one of 16 especially active and deadly sites around the world dubbed Decade Volcanoes, Merapi is also a proud member of the Pacific Ring of Fire. This volcanic and seismic belt is home to most of the world's catastrophic earthquakes. All by way of saying, it'll be a year of living perilously. Will keep you posted.

A view from the crater ...