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.

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